Massive white binders stashed on the top of cabinets at the Beverly Public Library document the minutia of environmental quality inspections at an old industrial site — measurements that point to the contamination that’s lingered in the Sohier Road neighborhood for 36 years.
Documents on file with the state Department of Unemployment Assistance show 78,337 cases where jobless workers were paid more benefits last year than they were eligible to receive — potentially putting taxpayers on the hook for $188.2 million before efforts to recover that money.
Reports to the state Department of Environmental Protection by managers of sewage systems along the Merrimack River show about 250 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater spilled last year into a drinking water source for more than 600,000 people.
And, in Georgetown, nearly 200 pages of emails exchanged among school officials show the deliberations behind a controversial decision to cancel the “Fall 2” football season when only 18 students signed up to play. “I say we do not run the football program because we will lose our shirt and it is not safe,” Superintendent Carol Jacobs wrote candidly to athletic director Ryan Browner.
While the number of people affected in each example varies from a few dozen to a population roughly the size of Denver, all bear on matters of public interest and concern. All were the basis of recent reporting in this newspaper and its affiliates in the North of Boston Media Group. And, in each case, these records might not have been shared — indeed, they likely would not have been shared — but for laws requiring their disclosure and journalists determined to use them.
In the coming week, journalists and good government advocates will celebrate a stone in the foundation of democracy as significant as the right to vote and equal protection of the laws. That is the accountability of government to the people it serves. And if the past 234 years have taught us anything, it’s that the phrase “we the people” is not enough itself to assure it.
Certainly a company like Varian Associates wouldn’t willingly reveal the results of groundwater samples and indoor air quality tests but for laws requiring those documents to be made publicly available. And even then, it took the interest, patience and tenacity of Salem News reporter Paul Leighton — along with people willing to decipher those reports for him — to alert neighbors that potentially carcinogenic chemicals were never completely cleaned on the property sold by the company in 1995.
Nor would state officials willingly share documents that reveal the inefficiency of an important government benefit. Sewage plant operators would not invite scrutiny of the spills that happen by design as part of their antiquated systems. In both cases, Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade obtained documents under the state’s Public Records Law that shed light on what was happening.
Nor would town school officials agonizing over a choice sure to upset parents, kids and a community willingly provide the messages exchanged as they narrowed in on a decision. Documents that showed the context and contours of that deliberation were released at the request of Mac Cerullo, sports editor of The Daily News of Newburyport.
Access to these and other records that show the workings of our local, state and national governments is protected by statutes such as the Public Records Law in Massachusetts, the Right to Know Law in New Hampshire, and the federal Freedom of Information Act. As imperfect as each of these laws is, we know from studying human nature and plain experience that the territory they protect, and the public access they ensure, would only shrink were it not for their regular use by journalists and others intent on delivering information to people who need it. They are like muscles that atrophy without exercise.
So, in this “Sunshine Week,” we honor not only the open government laws that require accountability by our elected leaders and those working on our behalf. We also celebrate those -- in this news organization and elsewhere -- who do the important work of using those laws to serve the people they’re meant to protect.