Today is the beginning of Sunshine Week, a national initiative designed to promote discussion of the importance of open government and freedom of information.
It all comes down to one important principle — the public’s right to know.
Transparency is an essential component of that principle. In its simplest definition, transparency means operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed.
When a governmental or administrative body acts to limit transparency, facts become obscured or hidden entirely. When that happens, the public is left in the dark.
That’s not how open government should operate — and it’s our job as voters and taxpayers to hold our elected officials accountable.
When an administrative official rejects media access to an important report, using the loophole of labeling it “a working document,” as the Killeen school district did last year regarding its special education audit, that doesn’t serve the public’s right to know.
When a law enforcement body withholds vital information in a criminal case by labeling it an open investigation — even long after its resolution — that violates the public’s right to know.
When a school board takes formal action on items that affect taxpayers in a workshop session — as the Killeen school board frequently does — that limits public input and thwarts transparency.
When a city administration refuses to let its department heads talk to the media — as was the case previously at Killeen City Hall — accuracy and timeliness of information suffer.
When governmental bodies meet in closed session to discuss items outside the exceptions prescribed by open meetings law — real estate, personnel and financial investments — transparency suffers.
During the past year, the Herald has worked to shed light on Killeen city documents that were shielded from the public eye —ranging from a staff directive regarding a citywide hiring freeze to a security contract that was awarded without competitive bidding.
In many cases, uncovering the crucial information meant filing open records requests with the Texas Attorney General’s office. Once such filing led to obtaining an email that showed Killeen’s then-assistant city manager over finance knew of the city’s money troubles long before she reported them to the City Council.
Clearly, not all records are open to the public. Cities and school districts often have legitimate reasons for withholding records — privacy, personnel records and pending litigation, for example.
But more often than not, the law is on the side of transparency.
Even with sensitive documents, the state attorney general’s office frequently will require the release of requested records, albeit with some redactions.
Last year, the Herald went to the federal level to request the Army’s report on the 2015 Black Hawk crash at Fort Hood that resulted in the deaths of four soldiers.
When the Army finally provided the Herald with the report, it was heavily redacted and didn’t even include the cause of the crash. However, the Herald’s military editor was able to obtain another report from a crash victim’s family member, which shed more light on the circumstances of the crash.
Sometimes, however, records are inaccessible because of legal loopholes. For example, police are not obligated to release reports involving incidents — even fatal shootings — in which no charges are filed. As a result, important details about these incidents are shielded from the taxpayers.
It’s not just the media who have the opportunity to file open records requests. Last year, Killeen city officials said they 1,218 Public Information Act requests between Jan. 1 and June 1, and sought an attorney general’s opinion on 287 of them. However, only a small portion of those information requests were from media representatives.
Bottom line, it is the public’s right to access all the information that is legally allowable.
Not only does the public have a right to know, but it has a responsibility to exercise that right.