Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunshine Laws & The Town Crier

"Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy."

-John Denver

March 16 to 22 was 'Sunshine Week." It was a week to focus on open government and freedom of information.

I am for all freedom of information, expect when it applies to me. It is the same sentiment that many public officials have.

I learned about public disclosure at a young age.

When I was 16, I got a speeding ticket. I did not fear the justice system. I feared my mother.

The Northern Kentucky Post had a section called the Town Crier. It listed people's secrets and dirty laundry. If you went to court for any reason, it wound up in the Town Crier.

Like my neighbors, my family denounced the Town Crier as a horrible invasion of privacy. Like my neighbors, my family read it every day.

I knew my mom would see my Town Crier debut.

I tried a cover up. For two weeks, I watched for the news carrier and rushed to catch the paper. I stood in the yard, read the Town Crier and brought the paper in after vetting.

I eventually found my name and proceeded to "lose" that section of the paper. The next day, mom was waiting in the driveway.

She had read the missing section at work.

She grounded me for the rest of my life but I eventually got probation.

The Town Crier was a better security measure than the police. I prayed I would never be in it again.

Joe Hackett, one of my high school teachers, took the Town Crier to a new level. He would read the list of offenders to the study halls and embarrass the student in front of everyone else.

Public humiliation worked. Few classmates made more than one appearance.

The Kentucky Post shut down last year. As papers decline in circulation, the Town Crier sections are the first to go. Few papers print minor traffic violations. If they do, few people read them.

We don't know our neighbors like we once did. That is ironic as our every move is being recorded.

I assume I don't have any privacy. I suspect all of my phone calls are listened to and someone is reading my mail. Someone knows what web pages I view and what television shows I watch.

I don't like it but I don't know what to do about it.

There was a comfort level when my neighbors were doing the watching. They had standards I wanted to meet.

Peer pressure and social acceptance shape a person's character.

Almost every president, with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt, came from a small town. A reason has to be that they grew up with a formal or informal version of the Town Crier.

They learned that it was hard to get away with doing something wrong. They learned it was even harder to cover it up.

A couple of years ago, I wrote that Eliot Spitzer might be president. I'm embarrassed that I said it but I missed a key element. Spitzer had grown up in New York City.

Elliot didn't have the Town Crier style of indoctrination.

Spitzer never experienced his mother waiting for him with the newspaper in her hand. I doubt he was ever grounded for the rest of his life. He never had to live up to his neighbors expectations.

He grew up thinking that he could get away with something.

I'm sure public officials hate the concept of freedom of information. If they screw up, they don't want the world to find out. They would rather us not know about insider deals.

Sunshine laws work like my mother waiting in the driveway. They ensure that people will be exposed and they keep public officials in line before they make a poor decision.

If you can't defend your actions in the newspaper, don't do it. Someone is going to find out.

Sunshine laws make me happy and make for better government.

Don McNay is the Chairman of McNay Settlement Group. He is the Secretary for the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. You can read his award winning syndicated column at or write to him at

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