The sun should always shine on government
PR, lobbying efforts, ‘walking quorums’ close off access to policymakers
By Ken Esten Cooke— The El Paso Times, in a series of investigations, uncovered an outrageous test score-inflation scandal by the El Paso Independent School District that led to jail time for its former superintendent.
Just last year, the Victoria Advocate found that a program designed to promote economic development in nearby Goliad saw public officials handing out loans to friends and family members, many of which were defaulted on without penalty, and no accurate records of where the public funds had been spent.
These are just two Texas examples of why open government is so needed in our society, and why we recognize Sunshine Week, March 16-23, and its focus on the freedom of information.
The Freedom of Information Foundation works to bring “sunlight” to all areas of government. It should be concerning to every citizen that so much of government works in the dark, from illegal collaborations by council members in a number of towns, to the revelations of massive snooping by the National Security Administration.
Nearly every legislative session in Texas, freedom of information advocates play defense to combat legislators who work to add loopholes and close public records. Their efforts, disturbingly, are promoted by public employee lobbying groups like the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Municipal League. One would think those organizations would be promoting the public’s right to know since they exist only because of our public tax dollars. But that is not the case.
Other schemes have only made it more difficult to get government to operate in the open for all to see. New tools such as cell phones, email and texting have made it easier to have “walking quorums” by councils, school boards and county commissions, where decisions are made before meetings — the electronic version of “nudge and a wink.”
On a broader level, there is a highly politicized spin-control culture at every government level that is more concerned with appearances than the free flow of information. Journalists should be able to directly contact and interview public officials — whether at federal, state or local levels — without an intervening from a public relations specialist. Federal and state shield laws, and whistleblower protections, would also add to the free flow of information.
We bring these up not to disparage public employees, most of whom do their jobs without malice, but to remind our readers that these jobs are a public trust. Open records and open meetings laws exist for everyone, not just “nosy reporters,” and they help keep government accountable.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said this in 1913: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Indeed, dirty politics and dirty government exist only in the cover of darkness.
It is popular to bash the press these days, but it is the Fourth Estate that is the best check and balance on government.
The First Amendment IS a conservative principle that needs to be protected. No matter your political stripe, we hope you will support the Freedom of Information Foundation (www.foift.org). Our democracy depends on it.