Daylight Savings Time starts today, the perfect way to kick off Sunshine Week, designed to shed light on the public’s right to know and the importance of government transparency.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative that began in 2005 to educate the public about the importance of government transparency. Spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors, the weeklong campaign brings to light how easily — or not — journalists can obtain information from governing bodies to share with the public. Sunshine Week always takes place in mid-March, corresponding with Freedom of Information Day on March 16.
In 2017, the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often than at any point in the past decade, according to an Associated Press analysis.
People who asked for records under the Freedom of Information Act received censored files or nothing in 78 percent of 823,222 requests.
The Herald in 2017 received an Army investigation report so heavily redacted it covered up the findings and recommendations related to the deaths of eight soldiers and a cadet in the June 2, 2016, training accident on Fort Hood. The Herald requested an unredacted version of the report and is still waiting.
It became even more important when a survivor of the accident gave an account that differs from an earlier unit investigation of the fatal rollover in flood-swollen Owl Creek, raising questions about whether blame was misplaced.
Why access matters
Perhaps the most commonly requested information is financial records. When government bodies act, they do so with taxpayer money.
Failure to supply financial documents can leave the public not knowing how their tax money is being spent.
A 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling in Boeing v. Paxton expanded what is considered a trade secret — and thus exempt from open records laws — to the extent that even records showing how taxpayer dollars are spent by private companies doing business with the government can be kept confidential.
One notable example is a 2015 McAllen Christmas parade. The city of McAllen paid pop singer Enrique Iglesias to perform at the parade with taxpayer money. The city claimed a loss resulting from hosting the event, but was not forced to disclose how much was spent on the singer under the precedent of the Boeing ruling.
What is happening
There are currently several bills making their way through the Texas Legislative Session that aim to improve the access the public has to information.
Senate Bill 943 addresses government contracts with private entities, and states that contract information is public and must be disclosed unless doing so would give a competitor an unfair advantage, or would give away an individual’s approach to work or organizational structure. The bi-partisan bill’s authors include Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, and Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. It was sent to the Senate’s Committee on Business and Commerce on March 1.
House Bill 1655 addresses access to information regarding individual’s dates of birth and states an individual’s date of birth is public information and may not be withheld. Among many reasons to make that information public is to verify the identity of suspects or people who die and keep them from being confused with a person with the same name. The bill sponsored by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, was referred to the State Affairs committee March 4.
Senate Bill 1640 amends the Open Meetings Act and states that members of governing bodies commit an offense if they participate in at least one among a series of communications that occur outside of an open meeting concerning business of the governing body where communications are among fewer members than a quorum. The bi-partisan bill was sponsored by Watson and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt of West Harris County. A Texas criminal court judge in February had ruled the law was vague.
What is happening here
The Herald has filed numerous public records requests in recent years. Some were granted and some appealed to the Texas Office of the Attorney General.
Here’s Killeen’s position on open records:
“The City of Killeen does the people’s work with the people’s money, so the people have the right to view documentation and proceedings in decision-making,” said city spokeswoman Hilary Shine last week.
“But there is a balance between public access and public interest that the law determines. The vast majority of the City’s business is done in public meetings or on the public record, and in those rare instances that a meeting is closed or a record is withheld, the City follows the law explicitly. Transparency is always an issue deliberated by the Legislature, so we keep a close eye on changes in the law each session so we can continue to follow it,” Shine said.
An email and a phone call on the subject to Copperas Cove spokesman Kevin Keller were not returned Friday.