This week is Sunshine Week. It doesn't have anything to do with the early daylight savings time change this year or the recent streak of sunny days that broke up a long bout of cold and snow.

Sunshine Week is a national observance that highlights the importance of the free flow of information for an open, effective and accountable government. It is celebrated this week, in part because the week includes the birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment, which protects our freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and the right to petition government.

Minnesota has some of the strongest laws protecting open government. Open government and records are vital. Privacy is necessary at times, but privacy is a right and privilege of the people, not the government.

However, the stringent laws of Minnesota aren't effective if people don't understand them or don't recognize they have the power to use them.

I was reminded how easy it is to forget these important laws when we think of ourselves as merely volunteers helping the community recently. In my role as an Economic Development Authority member, a quick decision had to be made on a seemingly insignificant item. Our director sent an e-mail to members outlining the sudden request.

I had a question about the proposal and automatically hit "reply to all" as did another member, and then another. Right away, it hit me that this was headed toward a "discussion" through e-mail. That is fine in making a private business decision, but clearly, that is not allowed under the Minnesota open meeting law, which takes precedence in my role as a public official on the EDA. In my next e-mail I reminded the other members we had to wait until a public meeting to discuss any issue, especially one involving expenditures, even if it jeopardized our ability to take part in the offer.

Despite my knowledge of the law in my role as a journalist - someone who has a copy of the open meeting law in a file on my desk - it almost slipped right by me. I can imagine the other members, with no experience on the other side of the table as members of the press, had few clues that they were on the verge of violating this important law.

The law, and the various courtroom decisions that support the law, expressly prohibit public bodies from discussing business outside of public meetings. That includes so-called "round robin" discussions, in which two members of a public body discuss an issue, and then go their separate ways to discuss the same issue with other members. All forms of these discussions are forbidden, whether they take place in person, on the phone or via e-mail. Discussions must take place at meetings, when a quorum of the public body is present.

The open meeting law is based on the presumption of openness. Every elected or appointed official who serves on a public body should be familiar with this law. This is important because we have hundreds of people in our area who serve as clerks and supervisors on town boards, members of city councils, school boards and county boards, or serve on the dozens of advisory committees and boards that make recommendations to other public bodies, all who are required to follow the open meeting law.

The law requires all these public officials, even if volunteers, to conduct their work in an atmosphere of openness, in a climate of "sunshine." Only in very limited special circumstances can discussions or decisions take place in a closed session.

The law recognizes that the government is the people, and those in charge of government perform best when they put the public's rights above all else. Decisions made in the cloak of darkness behind closed doors, even if by ignorance rather than blatant disregard, lead to bad things. Decisions made in private naturally raise people's suspicions. Decisions made in the full light of the sunshine earn more respect.

Government must also let the sun shine on the mountains of data and records in its possession.

Another community newspaper in Minnesota, the Hutchinson Leader, put together a short quiz for its readers two years ago during Sunshine Week. The quiz is a valuable learning tool about access to government data.

See for yourself. Each answer is either true or false.

1) You are entitled to look at a roster of inmates in any Minnesota county jail.

2) The law allows you to walk into any city hall to obtain the salary of any government employee without anyone asking you any questions.

3) You are entitled to receive printed minutes of the most recent city council meeting, even if the council has not yet approved those minutes.

4) You are entitled to receive a document that explains a school superintendent's salary and benefits, without anyone requiring you to give your name or submit a written request.

The answer to all four statements is "true." All four statements protect Minnesotans' access to government data. This access is outlined in an 80-page document known as the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act established the following rights for access to government data and to public data in particular: Records must be easily accessible and agencies must comply promptly to requests. You have the right to inspect government data at reasonable times and places at no cost. You have a right to copies for actual cost. You have a right to be informed of the meaning of data.

Sunshine Week isn't only for journalists, who have no more rights to information than any other citizen.

Our democracy is fueled by the free exchange of ideas. Ideas thrive on accurate facts. To get those facts, people must have access to government meetings and records that government creates.

For the benefit of all of us - reporters, officials and especially private citizens - never forget the importance of sunshine in the governmental process.