T   his doesn't happen often, unfortunately, but when it does it behooves us all to stand up and take notice.

Pennsylvania has finally jumped near the head of the class of 50 states in something.

It's not No. 1, but it's definitely in the top five states when it comes to, of all things, government transparency.

Shocked? Yeah, me, too.

First, that our state is at the top of the list for something, anything.

And second, that it's transparency, which is not something for which Pennsylvania government has been well-known.

For years -- and not that long ago, I remind you -- it might have graded closer to the bottom than the top when it came to open government. Because doing the business of the people out in the open for everyone to see was not something Pennsylvania officials held in high regard.

Remember, it was only about 11 years ago that then-Gov. Tom Ridge and the state legislature went behind closed doors at 2 a.m. on the last day of the budget approval process to agree on a deal that would give state lawmakers a 50 percent pension increase and teachers and other state employees a 25 percent increase.

We've been paying the piper ever since. And we'll continue to pay another 20 years, at least.

Taxpayers never had a chance to see it, read it, debate it or comment on it until after the dirty work had already been done, and it was too late in the process to do anything about it.

That's how transparent things were in this state.

Then consider that it took the best part of 20 years for the journalists of this state to drag state and local officials kicking and screaming into transparency with new rules for doing the people's business in the light of day.

Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act is fairly straightforward: With darned few exceptions, all governing boards must deliberate and vote in public, with interested parties being given an opportunity to comment.

That is the bedrock of open government.

But as recently as 2006, newspapers and journalists from every corner of the state lamented that citizens continued to struggle for access to even the most basic information about state and local government. That includes school districts.

Politicians dug in their heels, so years' worth of changes to the Sunshine Act still failed to produce the open government people thought was necessary.

And that was just a handful of years ago -- literally five fingers or less.

That's what quickly came to my mind upon learning that "Sunshine Review," a national nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency, graded Pennsylvania as one of the top performing states for government transparency.

At question? The availability of information, particularly on a website.

Believe it or not, Pennsylvania ranked at the top with four other states: California, Illinois, Washington and Maryland.

If you're curious, the five worst states for transparency are: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Dakota.

"Transparency empowers citizens," said Michael Barnhart, president of "Sunshine Review." "Citizens are entitled to crucial information on how the public business is conducted and how public money is spent. Without this information, voters cannot hold government accountable. Without transparency accountability is impossible."

Well, of course, that's true. It's pretty much what we said over and over again to state officials five, 10 and 15 years ago, in an attempt to get them to be more transparent with Pennsylvania's business. And they pretty much ignored us.

Which leaves my cynical streak free to wonder if this most-recent recognition is a matter of Pennsylvania finally getting its act together, magically improving its transparency almost overnight, or if it's more likely that all the other states in the nation have slid down that slippery slope of non-transparency and joined Pennsylvania in the muck it was floundering in just five years ago.

Not one state received an "A" grade for its performance as an open government. But five states, including Pennsylvania, graded out at B+, "Exceeding Expectations," and 17 more managed an "Above Average" designation with a B grade.

It also should be pointed out that, in general, states received higher grades for transparency than did counties, cities and school districts.

That includes Pennsylvania.

Clearly, the public is entitled to know and be informed fully about the conduct and activities of government.

Pennsylvania has been a little slow on the uptake in that regard.

But there has been progress.

So we should stand up and take notice.

I'm standing. I'm taking notice.

But Pennsylvania's overall grade was 82.92 percent. Top five? Sure.

But there's still a lot of room for improvement.

Let's not forget that.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.