Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week — an annual, 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.
And a key element of that principle is the public’s right to see.
When our elected — or unelected — officials conduct business behind closed doors, in “unofficial” conference calls or in unannounced meetings, we lose our ability to check their actions or weigh in on their decisions.
In these instances, transparency is lacking. And consequently, so is accountability.
Simply defined, transparency means operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. Without it, facts become obscured or hidden entirely.
When decisions are made out of the public view, how can we be sure our representatives are acting in our best interests, spending our money wisely or conducting themselves ethically?
That’s what Sunshine Week is all about — shining the light of transparency and accountability into all areas of governmental operations.
Certainly, Central Texas residents have been strong advocates of transparent government during the past year.
Specifically, their efforts have resulted in more accountability at Killeen City Hall and in the operations of the regional water district.
Last May, when the city floated a ballot proposition to give the city manager the authority to transfer funds between departments without City Council review, Killeen residents responded by rejecting it by 56 percent of the vote.
Ostensibly, the amendment was designed to streamline the city’s budget operations by allowing the city manager and staff to make adjustments as needed — rather than waiting for council approval.
But the proposition would have served to limit council oversight and reduce government transparency.
Voters no doubt remembered all too well the pattern of budget secrecy and questionable financial management that culminated in a proposed municipal budget that projected an $8 million shortfall back in 2016.
And they rightly voted accordingly, rejecting the city’s funds-transfer proposition.
Area residents also spoke out when the regional water district — Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 — moved to do away with elections for its board of directors in favor of appointed representatives, a change that would require legislative approval.
The proposed plan also would have expanded the district’s boundaries to include all of WCID-1’s water customers and enlarge the number of members on the board of directors to increase representation — both positive changes.
But area residents correctly recognized that the proposed plan would take the board selection process out of the hands of the water customers and give it to city officials — a system that would make board members responsible only to those who appoint them and open the door to potential insider deals.
The transparency of a water board’s actions may not seem important at first glance, but WCID-1 has the ability to set water rates for customers from Copperas Cove to Belton. It also has the authority to levy taxes.
Certainly, the district’s actions over the past year have given residents reason to be distrustful.
Last May’s water board election was the first the district had held in 24 years. As the district hadn’t officially expanded its boundaries in that time, only residents who lived within Killeen’s 1984 city limits were eligible to cast ballots.
Still, 1,900 residents went to the polls, re-electing incumbent Allen Cloud, but also electing former Killeen councilman Richard “Dick” Young, who had run a campaign based on increasing the district’s transparency.
However, when the district announced its proposed bylaws changes in December, transparency fell by the wayside.
Before the full board had taken an official vote on the proposed changes, district representatives were pitching the proposal to a state representative and Fort Hood officials.
After the board approved the proposed changes — with Young dissenting — representatives started soliciting support for the plan from city councils in the area. Again, the board had not voted in public to authorize this action.
By the time the plan went before the Killeen City Council, residents were outspoken about keeping their voting rights. The day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, council members voted to reject the portion of WCID-1’s plan calling for an appointed board — and the following day, the water board voted to keep elections.
Transparency had won the day — or so it seemed.
But after WCID-1’s bill was filed in Austin, Young realized that an important change had been made that the board had not authorized in an official vote.
The proposed measure would have exempted the district from a provision in the Texas Water Code barring developers from serving on the board. This is key, since the board president is a developer, and several other members could be included in the water code’s broad definition.
The bill was subsequently amended at Young’s request, but the entire process sums up the need for the public to remain engaged and informed on how our governmental entities do business.
It’s our job as voters and taxpayers to hold our elected officials accountable.
That’s made more difficult when officials are making decisions outside of properly posted open meetings or meeting in closed session to discuss items outside what is allowable by open meetings law.
That’s hampered when unelected directors of governmental entities act independently to make changes to proposed legislation that run contrary to state law.
And that becomes problematic when a governmental body has no contact information for its elected officials listed on its website — and its director won’t give that information to the public, as in the case of WCID-1.
As taxpayers and as voters, we are obligated to ask questions of our elected officials, demand access to all information that is legally allowable and to expect ethical behavior from all who serve us in government.
The media may be considered the watchdogs of our governmental entities, but those rights and responsibilities extend to the public as well. We must recognize the importance of shining the light of transparency on every elected board, council and commission.
That holds true, not just during Sunshine Week, but all year round.