Sue's Views: All you have to do is ask
MORRIS - Every March for the past 12 years, I have traveled to Washington, D.C. to talk to members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, and really anyone who will listen, about the importance of agriculture research. The Barnes-Aastad Soil and Water Conservation Research Association has been sending a delegation on this trip for over 50 years and I am honored to be part of this tradition.
Our goal is to express stakeholder support for the USDA Agriculture Research Service in general and the North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in particular.
No two trips have been the same, but every single one has been worthwhile. This year was no different, although Mother Nature certainly raised the level of difficulty by dumping about four inches of snow on the District the day after we arrived. This is not the first time we’ve encountered snow. But coming from Minnesota, it is maddening to watch a community collectively lose control over something we routinely deal with. However, I can tell you that shoveling is not an instinctive skill. And the snow emergency surcharge was a bit of a shock, but so is having a cab available the minute you step out the door.
The trip is eye-opening every year. We are in D.C. during what is called “appropriations week.” Normally, the president's budget has been released about a week prior and folks want to get into to talk to their congressmen about what they like and don't like about the presidential proposal. The halls of the House and Senate office buildings are filled with people, just like us, looking to ask for their share.
We also visit with USDA-ARS administrators about the agency and how Morris fits into the overall scheme of things. This year, our timing was impeccable, as the President released his budget during our stay. As a result, we were able to attend the Secretary of Agriculture’s review of the budget. Seriously, we were in the news briefing room at USDA, 20 feet from Secretary Tom Vilsak. If I could have remembered how to form a complete sentence, I could have asked a question of him.
About four years ago, we started making a stop at the Office of Management and Budget to visit with a program examiner who has input on the president's budget. That also is a very eye-opening experience, as the first thing this civil servant says is that “You pay my salary, I am here to answer your questions.”
I was thinking of these experiences as I contemplated writing about Sunshine Week, March 16 through 22. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.
I take my job as a journalist seriously. What I am working on is taking my responsibility as a citizen as serious. As with most things, the rights we enjoy as citizens come with obligations. Yes, public access to our government is important, but so is the public taking the initiative to access its government. I have been involved in news reporting in Morris for over 20 years and I can tell you, most of the time, the public is often missing from the conversation because no one bothered to attend.
Certainly, being a government watchdog is one of the main responsibilities of a local newspaper. But that does not absolve the public from taking an active role in process. And you don’t have to be a member of the press to access information about your government.
All you need is to ask.