Council members have responsibility to be open
BY JANEY LACK
June 12, 2013 at 1:12 a.m.
Last Saturday's lead story indicating the refusal of some City Council members to comply with a request by the newspaper to provide public records has continued to trouble me. Why would an elected official not turn over requested records?
I served on City Council for seven years (1979-86). The open meeting/open records laws were engrained in me as very clear boundaries on what I, as an elected city official, could do and what I could not. The Legislature wrote the laws to provide more open and transparent government. To me, they were the cornerstone of both good government and good service.
At the time I was elected, the laws were regarded as somewhat "new." They actually had been adopted in 1967 and weren't new at all, but they represented such a dramatic departure from the old "business as usual" and were so far-reaching in scope that they were often a focal point of attention. Before I even took office, I was taught my obligations under the Open Meeting Act, and it was made very clear to me that these mandates were serious, and they were written to be followed.
For those who haven't held public office and may not be familiar with the laws, the Open Meetings Act is codified in Chapter 551 of the Government Code. It specifies what constitutes a public meeting, what creates a quorum, when public business can be discussed and what is expected of our public officials to ensure that public business is debated and voted on in open. The Public Information Act is located in Chapter 552 of the Government Code and speaks to rules regarding disclosure of public documents. The law is easily accessible on the Internet and summaries of the law can be "Googled" with ease.
The open meeting/open records laws are now considered so essential to open governance that starting in 2006 all elected and appointed public officials have been required by state law to receive training in Texas open governance laws. Attorney Greg Abbott has created an online Open Meetings Handbook. In its forward he notes that "ignorance of the law does not shield anyone from compliance with the law." In other words, those in service are expected to have a good command of both open records and open meetings laws and to comply with them.
It is disturbing to me that some of our elected officials have chosen not to answer the request to turn over public records. Is it because they have violated the law? Have they been guilty of "walking quorums," which are against the law? (Walking quorums involve talking to other city council members one by one or by email, incorrectly thinking this is not in violation of the Open Meetings Act). The only way for the public to know this is by looking at the phone records and emails of the city councilors (which are on city-owned iPads). These records are public records, and Victoria has a right to know.
Janey Lack is a Victoria businesswoman and a member of the Victoria Advocate's education steering committee board. She served "at large" on the Victoria City Council from 1979 to 1986.