Let’s clear away the clouds cov­er­ing the sun­shine law

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - VIEWPOINTS -

It’s quite sim­ple, re­ally. We Tex­ans have a right to know how our tax­payer dol­lars are spent.

It’s our money. We, the peo­ple, choose our gov­ern­ment. Our elected pub­lic of­fi­cials rep­re­sent us. They man­age and spend our tax money. But we, the peo­ple, get to de­cide whether they are do­ing it well.

To do that, we need light shin­ing on the work­ings of our gov­ern­ment. But that es­sen­tial el­e­ment of our democ­racy is in jeop­ardy in Texas.

Tax­pay­ers are be­ing de­nied in­for­ma­tion about gov­ern­ment con­tracts with pri­vate com­pa­nies and about tax dol­lars flow­ing into large non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Why? Two Texas Supreme Court rul­ings in 2015 weak­ened the Texas Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act and al­lowed this block­ing of in­for­ma­tion.

It’s con­ceiv­able that the court’s jus­tices did not en­vi­sion how wide the swath of se­crecy would grow in the wake of their de­ci­sions.

Now, in re­sponse, more than a dozen di­verse or­ga­ni­za­tions have come to­gether to form the non­par­ti­san Texas Sun­shine Coali­tion to en­sure our gov­ern­ment doesn’t op­er­ate in the dark.

“The Texas Sun­shine Coali­tion is ded­i­cated to restor­ing the Texas Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act to serve its in­tended pur­pose,” the coali­tion ex­plains on its web­site at www.tx­sun­shine.org.

The Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Foun­da­tion of Texas is a coali­tion mem­ber.

To­day, not only are the guts of pub­lic con­tracts with pri­vate firms of­ten kept se­cret, but some­times the fi­nal con­tract amount is, too, be­cause com­pa­nies ar­gue it could put them in a dis­ad­van­tage in a fu­ture bid­ding sit­u­a­tion.

Con­tracts for a pub­lic power plant, po­lice body cam­era equip­ment, col­lege sports mar­ket­ing deals, a holiday pa­rade en­ter­tainer and many more spend­ing agree­ments are off lim­its to the pub­lic.

Some­times there are at­tempts to hide li­cens­ing and reg­u­la­tory data or in­for­ma­tion about hir­ing de­ci­sions.

In Austin, city of­fi­cials ar­gued they should be al­lowed to hide the iden­ti­ties of fi­nal­ists in their city man­ager search be­cause it would put them at a com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage with other cities. Thank­fully, that ar­gu­ment to the Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice failed.

But some 2,600 at­tempts to block in­for­ma­tion us­ing the court’s re­cent se­crecy rul­ings have been per­mit­ted by the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice be­cause of how broadly the court’s de­ci­sions were writ­ten.

That’s where we, the peo­ple, and our elected state rep­re­sen­ta­tives come in.

Leg­is­la­tors created the Texas Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act. It’s time for them to take charge and en­sure that the law once again ben­e­fits the peo­ple of our state by rewrit­ing some lan­guage in the law to ad­dress the court’s ac­tions.

To be fair, not all pri­vate busi­nesses, which now have far more abil­ity to keep gov­ern­ment records pri­vate, come down on the side of se­crecy.

Many rec­og­nize that if they are paid by tax­payer money, a cer­tain level of trans­parency is war­ranted. Open­ness in gov­ern­ment bid­ding also helps small and mid-sized busi­nesses com­pete with big busi­ness for pub­lic con­tracts be­cause the smaller com­pa­nies can view the past win­ning bids.

Let’s also be clear on this: There’s no ef­fort afoot to force a pri­vate com­pany to re­veal the for­mula for its se­cret sauce. There has al­ways been a trade se­crets ex­emp­tion in the Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act to keep that kind of in­for­ma­tion pri­vate, and that should re­main.

Com­mon ground for solv­ing this se­crecy strug­gle is surely achiev­able.

This and other gov­ern­ment trans­parency is­sues are on the agenda at the FOI Foun­da­tion of Texas state con­fer­ence Sept. 21 in Austin.

The con­fer­ence will also fo­cus on whether dates of birth should be avail­able on cer­tain pub­lic records, such as can­di­date ap­pli­ca­tions for pub­lic of­fice and crim­i­nal jus­tice records; how gov­ern­ments can go about ob­tain­ing pub­lic records stored on pri­vate elec­tronic de­vices; and whether there should be lim­its to free speech on col­lege cam­puses.

Opin­ions vary on many of these ques­tions, but work­ing to­gether we can fig­ure out how to bal­ance com­pet­ing in­ter­ests. We can do this.

Per­haps along the way we will re­mem­ber the wise words of the Texas Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act declar­ing that the peo­ple in­sist on re­main­ing in­formed and “that gov­ern­ment is the ser­vant and not the mas­ter of the peo­ple.”

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