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Alan MacBain / Digital First Media

James Madison once said, "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both."

He was a smart man, one who knew the power of information and the power held by those able to control it.

He knew.

He knew that without an informed citizenry, any nation was doomed to failure.

It is no coincidence that Sunshine Week, an annual observance intended to raise awareness about the importance of open government, roughly coincides with Madison's birthday, which was Sunday.

Madison, it could be said, is the father of open government much as he is often considered the father of the Constitution.

Many see this week as a creation of a narrow interest, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which established the observance in 2005.

But it goes far beyond the interest of journalists. It goes, as Madison noted, to the heart of our democracy. The only way our grand experiment in self-governance can survive and thrive is with a free flow of information, with an informed citizenry.

Yet, every year, it seems, it gets more and more difficult for citizens to find out what their government is doing. For all of the lofty ideals, it is a very basic principle of democracy.

Open government means transparent government. In too many cases, though, those elected to do the work of the people tend to believe that government works best in the dark; that the opinions or guidance of their employers, the people, is an impediment rather than a basic requirement.

We've seen it at every level of government -- from the National Security Agency's massive spy program to the small-town cronyism that led to the corruption in Bell and locally in Hercules.

The people should be informed about such things and be able to go to their representatives and challenge them. It's important whether lobbying Congress on budget cuts or appearing before the local school board to question textbook purchases.

Governments do not own public records, they are merely the custodians of them.

Those records and information belong to the public and the people have the right to see and access them.

So during this week we urge you to make an effort to become better informed about your government. Go to a government meeting and ask some questions.

Ask your public officials for documents that back up the assertions they make.

As Madison said, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

The man knew.