The public has a right to know.
That’s the guiding principle behind Sunshine Week — an annual, national initiative designed to promote discussion of the importance of open government and freedom of information.
As such, it is the news media’s responsibility to shine light on — or bring sunshine to — areas of government records and activities that are not readily visible to the general public.
Both the Killeen Daily Herald and its sister newspaper, the Temple Daily Telgram take that responsibility seriously.
During Sunshine Week — which starts today and continues through Saturday — the Herald will examine the tenets of transparent, open and accountable government, through columns, editorials and news accounts.
Two of those opinion columns come from our elected legislators.
In today’s edition, District 55 state Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, advocates for “responsible, accountable transparent government” in an opinion piece recognizing Sunshine Week.
Later this week, District 24 state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, makes her own pitch for transparency and accountability in our governmental bodies.
Certainly, open government demands acknowledgement of the public’s right to know. But it also involves the public’s right to see — and that requires transparency.
When our public officials conduct business behind closed doors, call unannounced meetings or take action through private conference calls, transparency is severely diminished, along with accountability.
Without transparency, facts can become obscured or hidden entirely.
Moreover, when decisions are made out of the public view, we can’t be certain that our representatives are acting in our best interests, spending our money wisely or conducting themselves ethically.
Sunshine Week serves as a reminder that we must remain vigilant in protecting and advocating for the public’s right to know — and see.
Lack of transparency involves more than a gap in the public’s knowledge and oversight. It can have a financial impact as well.
When Killeen-area voters approved a $426 million school bond issue in 2018, they signed off on a specified list of construction projects proposed by the school district. However, once the bond had passed, the Killeen Independent School District’s board of trustees made changes to some projects and added others — which had not received voter approval.
Moreover, in some cases, the board informed the district’s residents of the revised projects after they had been approved — a decided lack of transparency.
Even though the changes did not translate to an increase in cost to taxpayers, the revisions did involve a shift in priorities —which should have been decided with public input.
Now the school district has proposed a second, $265 million bond issue, with voters to decide the fate of the package in May. The first proposition of the two-part bond issue calls for two new elementary schools, the rebuilding of two elementaries and the renovation of Ellison High School. The second bond proposition calls for upgrading the stadiums at three of the four existing high schools.
If the voters give their approval to this latest initiative, it should be incumbent upon the district and its trustees to abide by both the spirit and the letter of the bond.
That will require transparency and accountability on the part of the school board — and oversight on the part of the news media and the public.
That oversight starts at the polls, and with a board election accompanying the bond initiative on May 2, this is an opportunity for voters to press candidates on the issue of transparency.
The Killeen Daily Herald will give them that opportunity on Monday night, as the Herald will host a forum for candidates seeking two seats on the Killeen ISD board.
As with last week’s forum for Killeen City Council candidates, Monday’s event will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center. Admission is free.
Among the topics the candidates are scheduled to address are the upcoming bond issue and the board’s oversight of the 2018 bond.
It is wholly appropriate that this forum take place during Sunshine Week, and the candidates’ answers regarding their commitment to transparency and accountability should be taken into account when it comes time to head to the polls.
Of course, transparency is a two-way street. The news media must uphold that principle as well.
As the New York Times noted in a recent op-ed, independence remains the bedrock of journalism.
During this election season, it is important to note that Herald and Telegram reporters and editors are held to the highest standards of accountability and impartiality.
Journalists from our two newspapers are not allowed to work for political parties, participate in candidates’ campaigns, wear political buttons or put political bumper stickers on their vehicles. Further, company bylaws forbid them from serving on government boards or running for elected office.
None of this means a journalist can’t cast a vote or have a political opinion. It’s just that those opinions shouldn’t be on display for the public to see — with the possible exception of an op-ed piece.
Certainly, journalists are considered the watchdogs of our governmental entities, but others play a vital role as well.
As Rep. Shine noted in his op-ed piece, “The American system of government is you and me. We are the government, but we must accept our responsibility through active involvement in the daily process.”
Indeed, it’s our job as voters and taxpayers to hold our elected and appointed officials accountable for open, honest and effective government.
We are obligated to ask questions of our officials, demand access to all legally allowable information and to expect ethical behavior from all who serve us in government.
That’s a standard of openness that we must continue to champion and uphold.
Spreading the sunshine of transparency in all areas of government is our best guarantee of a free and open democratic process.
That holds true, especially this week — and throughout the entire year.