Sunshine Week reminds public officials of their obligation to openness

Posted Saturday, Mar. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints



Open government bills

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas tracks and provides information on legislation that enhances or detracts from open government in the state. Here's a partial list of the bills (and their authors) the foundation is following this year:

HB284 (Zedler) requires school districts to post checking account transactions online.

HB382 (Burnam) limits confidentiality agreements in settlements of lawsuits against government entities or public officials.

HB524 (Capriglione) requires elected officials to disclose contracts with government entities.

HB816 (Davis of Harris County) allows governments to post lists of polling places only on the Internet.

HB889 (Fallon) requires governing bodies of counties, school districts and larger cities to broadcast regular open meetings on the Internet.

HB919 (Fletcher) restricts disclosure of information on the location of a law enforcement vehicle.

HB951 (Keffer) limits involvement of Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in grants on which they have a conflict of interest.

HB1322 (Fletcher) requires judges to seal information about police use of mobile tracking devices.

HB1608 (Hughes, Stickland, Burnam) opens information on police tracking of signals from cellphones and other wireless electronic devices.

HB1794 (Pitts) requires information about existing debt on bond election ballots.

HB1805 (Pitts) requires school districts to compile and release information about their facilities.

HB2185 (King of Zavala County) establishes civil and criminal liability for broadcasting images of people in private places.

SB458 (Rodriguez) restricts disclosure of information from motor vehicle records.

SB656 (Paxton) requires municipal governments to document whether budgets will raise more money than the previous budget.

SB988 (Hegar) exempts from disclosure records of law enforcement telephone calls, text messages, emails or other electronic communications without consulting the attorney general.

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The Texas Open Meetings Act is designed to let members of the public see what their elected officials are up to.

But sometimes, you watch them in action and still wonder what they're up to.

At their Feb. 26 meeting, Fort Worth school trustees were asked to move almost $1.7 million from one account to another to pay the start-up cost of a new student information system -- which the board previously approved -- for keeping schedules, grades and a plethora of other data.

But board members who had agitated the loudest for a new system balked at what was supposed to be a routine budget amendment.

Trustee Ann Sutherland led the way, complaining that she hadn't received a report she requested about substitute teachers. She wanted to delay consideration, even though administrators said that would stall 2013-14 scheduling already under way. She wanted to use money already in the IT budget, though that was meant for salaries.

The budget amendment failed, 4-4. (Trustee T.A. Sims did not make the meeting.) Trustees Sutherland, Carlos Vasquez, Juan Rangel and J.R. Martinez voted against approval.

Clearly that was a wrongheaded move. As board President Judy Needham tried to move forward on the agenda, Rangel suggested that the board take a brief break.

What happened during that recess is anybody's guess. When trustees returned, Sutherland moved to reconsider the vote, and, without any discussion, the board agreed 8-0 to shift the money.

If that episode didn't outright violate the letter of the open meetings law, it sure kicked the spirit in the teeth.

Today's start of Sunshine Week seems a good time to remind those trustees who talk big about transparency that their actions speak louder.

Started in Florida in 2002, Sunshine Week spotlights the public's right to know.

Texas' Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act are considered some of the strongest open-government laws in the nation. But they don't work if public officials skirt them.

Among the bills filed this legislative session to make the workings of Texas government more transparent is one that would bar elected officials from circumventing the law by doing business via texts, emails, online postings or other electronic means during public meetings.

HB 2934 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, also would make electronic messages involving public business, including those by officeholders' staffers, subject to disclosure.

Some Fort Worth school trustees have been known to text extensively during meetings, including with individuals who have a vested interest in the board's actions.

Electronic devices are great resources, and they can help residents learn more, quickly, about their representatives. But they shouldn't be tools for evading scrutiny.

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