Thursday, June 17, 2010

The definition of OPEN government

I wish people had the same experience I encountered in 30 years of small-town journalism when it comes to government hiding itself and its actions from the public. It happens more frequently than it should and certainly more often than it rains around here.
Very few elected officials on city councils or school boards actually know the ins and outs of the Texas Open Meetings and Open Records Acts. They really don't WANT to learn about them either and, instead, rely on "legal counsel" or city attorneys, who often don't know those laws well enough either.
In fact, groups like the Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Municipal League are usually the ones behind attempts to weaken both laws because they don't want the public to closely scrutinize what they do. All too often they campaign about "being for the people" and then hide themselves from those very people.
To boil it down in simple terms, ANYTHING discussed in open session is subject to public disclosure - if a document, such as a budget, or memo, or other items that can be duplicated, is mentioned in public, it MUST (not could be, but MUST) be made available to ANYONE who requests it.
Now, sadly the law allows for loopholes to screen government entities from complying - there is a time frame to comply and there can be a "reasonable" charge placed on making those documents available. The reasonable part is up to the entity, which is just a dodge.
But there is NO limit on the number of documents that can be requested or the number of times a request can be made. Anything to the contrary is a violation of STATE law - not a local one.
Second, there are only limited circumstances under which an entity can go behind closed doors and discuss things away from the public - contracts, land negotiations, personnel, speaking with a legal representative. AND in NO way shape or form can ANY deliberations take place AND ALL this behind closed door discussion must either be transcribed by hand or audio/video recording. That transcription must be preserved in a vault if and when a judge requests it be produced. ANY violation of that is against STATE law (meaning fine and/or prison time). Oh yeah, it MUST be posted on the meeting's agenda prior to the meeting and the EXACT purpose must be clearly stated for the public to see (the agenda's posting must be in a place accessible to the public). Generalities don't cut it; it MUST be absolutely specific.
You just cannot call for an executive session in the middle of a meeting and have it be legal. Anything transacted AFTER an illegal closed session is null and void. That's been the old standard of open government for decades in Texas.
I cannot tell you the number of times both laws get violated in communities without strong media presence. And even then it happens all the darn time. Such is the nature and automatic mindset of small town pols.
Once a superintendent of a newly-consolidated school district called for an executive session to discuss ... mascots and school colors. Afterwards I cornered him and told him he used his one "get out of jail free" card and the next time, charges would be filed against him for state law violation.
In every community, there are so-called gadflys that appear at every meeting imaginable and fact-check every word uttered. Often they are off base but often they are spot-on and are part of the checks and balances needed to keep our democracy in line. They DO self a useful purpose, despite attitudes and behavior often seen as erratic.
Sometimes, in communities I've covered, the gadflys get elected and see it is not easy on the other side of the fence. I served on a city council for 2 years in a real small South Texas town and I discovered it was a lot harder to make certain decisions from that POV.
But for cities and schools to hide behind the skirts of the judiciary simply to avoid answering questions or producing public documents they KNOW will appear unfavorable to certain positions is cowardly, and yes, the city of Plano and its subsidiaries (including the Eco-Devo people AND the Arts of Collin County folks who are playing around with taxpayer money like it's just Monopoly pieces) are guilty of it when it comes to Jack Lagos.
I've seen much of his material and as a former reporter, it is quite legitimate to at least ask for a valid explanation - regardless of which side of this debate you sit. Even ACC supporters can respect that and if the explanation is satisfactory, it ends the questioning.
But hiding and dodging just makes it appear to be smoke and if there IS something to hide.
Open government benefits everyone but the elected do NOT get to set the definition of "Open" - the electorate DO!

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