Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Transparency is necessary in government
Government entities at all levels struggle with transparency. From the federal investigations into the attack in Benghazi, Libya, to appointing a replacement judge in Victoria County, tough decisions must be made, and leaders should make them in as transparent a manner as possible.
The Victoria County Commissioners Court is tasked with naming a new judge for the County Court at Law No. 1 seat. Judge Laura Weiser will retire Thursday to work with the Texas Center for the Judiciary in Austin as a judicial liaison.
In late January, County Judge Don Pozzi appointed a committee including Administrative Services Director Joyce Dean, Commissioner Clint Ives, County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Daniel Gilliam, retired Judge Pat Kelly and attorney Kevin Cullen, three of whom have prior judicial experience. This committee was charged with examining the list of applicants for the judge's seat and presenting the list of top candidates to the commissioners court.
At the Feb. 19 commissioners court meeting, the field of applicants was narrowed down to the top five. The original proposal called for commissioners to vote on the top three recommended by the committee, but the list was expanded to avoid the perception of handpicking favorites. This was a good start in the direction of transparency, but the commissioners' decision to conduct the interviews for a judge - which is a publicly elected position - in closed session was a step backward. Commissioner Gary Burns recommended the court conduct the interviews in open session because the judge's seat is an elected position. Burns said if this was a position that did not require an election, closed session would be required by law, but that is not the case here.
Judges are figures with an immense amount of power over a person's life. Their judicial beliefs, attitude, credentials and more are all important factors that residents need to know to make an educated decision during an election. By conducting these interviews in closed session, the court effectively removed that information from the people who will need to make a decision on this office when the term is up Dec. 31, 2014.
Victoria may be a big town, but there are still some small-town ideas, including the typical "good ole boy" conspiracy. Conducting these interviews for a public servant position in full view of the constituents whom the potential candidates would serve would have helped the commissioners to dispel this assertion and garner a reputation for transparency and trust. Burns said he has already had some residents express their belief that the court had a candidate chosen from the start, which he said is not the case.
"All of the candidates were so qualified that I personally changed my mind three times in the process," he said. We are glad that such qualified, passionate candidates were available for consideration, but we wish that the community was given a chance to observe the interviews and gain a better understanding of the people who wished to serve them and may take part in an election for the same seat in the future.
We congratulate Travis Ernst for his appointment to the seat at Tuesday afternoon's meeting, and we applaud Commissioner Gary Burns and District Attorney Steve Tyler for their recommendation to hold the interviews in public. Thank you for attempting to conduct business in a more transparent manner. We hope, should the opportunity present itself again, the rest of the court will follow suit.
This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.