Last Tuesday could have been a big day for transparency in government.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
Both the Killeen City Council and Killeen school board had discussions about how the city and school district handle public information, respectively.
Though both bodies shared detailed information about the process, little was discussed in the way of making improvements to existing procedures — and that’s unfortunate.
Newly elected Councilman Gregory Johnson requested a discussion on transparency. What city staff offered in response was a presentation replete with statistics about how many public information requests the city handles and how burdened the paralegal staff is in dealing with them.
What was overlooked or intentionally omitted, however, was the fact that the city administration requires all information requests to go through the city’s public information office and does not allow direct access to department heads — a system that actually increases the number of written requests to the city.
This cumbersome setup not only results in delays in obtaining information, but it discourages followup questions and can result in publication of inaccurate or incomplete information.
It goes without saying that a brief, direct conversation with a department head or supervisor would yield more accurate information than a series of back-and-forth emails filtered through the public information office. But that is the system the city has in place.
Also, the city has frequently attempted to block access to information by seeking an attorney general’s opinion in response to Freedom of Information requests — appealing nearly 300 FOI requests to the AG’s office since Jan. 1, out of just over 1,200 filed by a variety of requestors.
The state’s public information act is clear on what information is available to the public and what is not. Herald reporters are trained to know what to request.
Certainly, there are legitimate reasons for seeking an attorney general’s ruling to block access, but in many cases the appeal seems designed to delay the discussion up to 45 business days, which is how long the AG’s office has to respond.
This strategy was employed by the Killeen school district, a fact Superintendent John Craft acknowledged when discussing the district’s special education audit.
Craft noted that after the Herald requested the audit, the district sought to block its release through an AG request, since the full board hadn’t seen it. He said the district withdrew its AG request once the board had reviewed the report.
That’s all well and good, but filing appeals with the AG’s office penalizes residents, both in terms of legal costs and information delays. In addition, three trustees served on the board audit committee, so technically it had been reviewed.
On the same day KISD was touting transparency, the district fought to block the Herald’s access to a security video of a campus incident — even with the faces blurred. This action came just days after Belton ISD released a similar video to the public.
And just a day earlier, Craft told Herald editors that in order to arrange an interview with the district’s special education director, the Herald would have to submit questions in writing.
As a responsible community partner, the Herald attempts to educate and inform its readers, especially where tax money is involved. Sometimes following the money requires searching city documents and correspondence, and obtaining them often requires the filing of open records requests.
Producing a fair and balanced story requires complete information. Receiving partial or filtered answers from a public information office makes that goal difficult to reach.
For his part, Councilman Johnson is not satisfied with the status quo; he gave the city 10 days to respond to his request for an explanation of its public information procedures.
Johnson told the council Tuesday, “I just want to be fair, open and transparent.”
That’s a philosophy of government we can all applaud.