This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative focused on the importance of open government and the freedom of public information. To mark the occasion, ITPI released a new brief titled “Closing the Books: How Government Contractors Hide Public Records” featuring examples of businesses blocking the release of public documents to reporters, taxpayers and even local and state officials. Across the country, contractors have fought against informing the public about the fees they charge, how they spend public funds, and details on the quality of public services they provide.
Take for example United Water New York, a for-profit, privately-run water utility, which refused to explain $56 million in charges last year for a water treatment facility that was never built; instead a spokesperson claimed that the “release of specific financial or proprietary information could potentially harm the competitive position of the company, as well as its vendors.”
Sadly this isn’t an isolated incident. When contractors assume control of public services and provide public goods, they are too often able to circumvent sunshine laws and shield important public information from disclosure by claiming that transparency would hurt their bottom lines. All a contractor needs to do is shout “trade secret” or “proprietary” to prevent citizens and journalists from accessing public records.
Decision makers can help close this sunshine gap by extending disclosure laws to contractors, eliminating loopholes and exemptions that allow companies to withhold public information, and enshrining strong transparency mandates in the very contracts that hand over public services to private corporations.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant, as the saying goes. By demanding more transparency from contractors, their books and their operations, we’ll help strengthen our democracy, promote fiscal responsibility, check corruption and bolster public confidence.