Advocate editorial board opinion: Public must push harder for open government
Sept. 14, 2013 at 4:14 a.m.
Updated Sept. 15, 2013 at 4:15 a.m.
When government wrongdoing is exposed, the public sits up and takes notice.
The public's reaction is critical because an informed citizenry serves as the backbone of our democracy. We have a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Of course, the people can't play this role if they don't know what their government is doing. The Victoria Advocate's special investigation into Goliad's financial problems provoked a strong, positive reaction from the community. This report continues on the front page of Sunday's newspaper and will be ongoing.
Readers offered an outpouring of support for the newspaper's first installment. These words of praise from Crossroads resident Patrick Nelson stood out:
"The media was intended to be an unofficial fourth branch of government by our nation's Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution - exposing the truth and shining a light on political corruption, keeping our elected public servants in check. Thank you, Advocate staff, for doing that, not only with this story, but also a good number of other investigative stories done over years exposing political injustices locally. I could not be any more prouder of the Advocate and staff."
While we appreciate deeply the support of readers like Nelson, what we want to stress is his message about open government and the checks and balances essential for it to function properly. Unfortunately, too often public officials make government less open and more difficult to investigate. Every legislative session, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and various media groups are fighting efforts by lawmakers to close public records and public meetings.
The Goliad investigation happened only through the use of open records and the coverage of open meetings. The work started with concerned residents Roney and Linda Powell, who had compiled a stack of open records before first meeting with an Advocate reporter. Our reporter built on their efforts by filing many requests for additional documents.
The newspaper uses the same methods to watch other government boards across the Crossroads. The results are not always as successful.
In May, the Advocate requested records of communication among City Council members related to what appeared to be a violation of the open meetings law by four elected officials. The four are suspected of having met before the public council meeting to decide their position on the mayor's decision to withdraw from a runoff election. The council members' emails, text messages and phone records would shed light on whether the law was broken. All of these communication methods are public record by law.
Unfortunately, the law lacks teeth in this area. The city attorney complied with the Advocate's request for this information by simply passing it along to the council members. However, he had no way of making individual council members comply with the law.
The Advocate took the council members' noncompliance to the Victoria district attorney and the state attorney general. The district attorney chose not to investigate, and the attorney general's office replied last week that it, by law, had to accept the city's position that it had complied with the newspaper's open-records request. How is that for a Catch-22?
The situation would be laughable, except that the public remains in the dark about the actions of its elected officials.
The attorney general also is reviewing yet another attempt by a Crossroads government to keep its actions out of public view. Earlier this year, Calhoun County settled out of a court a lawsuit brought by a county employee against a county commissioner she accused of secretly video recording her undress. Even though the county spent public money to fight and settle the lawsuit, officials there contend the settlement amount is secret.
Previous attorney general rulings have contradicted Calhoun County's position, but that doesn't stop local officials from delaying the release of this information by going back to the state for yet another ruling. Presumably, the public eventually will get this information, but the county's position reveals an all-too-typical mindset by public officials: Let's keep the people in the dark.
The people hold the power to change this. You must do more than sit up and take notice. Hold your public officials accountable. Demand your legislators pass laws to make government more transparent. Insist on the government our Founding Fathers envisioned.
Your Advocate will keep up the good fight, but we need you to win it.