Sunshine Week, March 12-18, is the perfect time to show support for government transparency issues championed by the Texas Press Association in the 85th session of the Texas Legislature.
Members of the TPA Legislative Advisory Committee (LAC), along with TPA Executive Vice President Donnas Baggett and Member Services Director Ed Sterling, are monitoring bills and meeting with legislators promoting issues related to the three pillars of transparency: open records, open meetings and public notices in newspapers.
While the sunshine promoted by Sunshine Week is considered the best disinfectant in government transparency, cloudy skies threaten to shadow public information in Texas. Three recent Texas Supreme Court rulings have weakened the Texas Public Information Act. Legislation to close those new loopholes tops TPA’s agenda for this legislative session.
The Texas Supreme Court’s Boeing v. Paxton (2015) ruling allows governments and the private entities with whom they transact business to withhold basic information on bid prices, etc. simply because at some point in the future the information may be used by a competitor. The ruling also allows the exception to apply to final, awarded contracts, leaving taxpayers in the dark as to how much a public project cost. The ruling was cited as a reason to deny the citizens of Denton access to bid and contract information for the largest capital project in the city’s history— a new $265 million power plant.
The high court’s Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton (2015) ruling redefined when publicly supported private entities must comply with the Public Information Act. As a result, non-profit groups contracting with cities to perform economic development work are no longer required to release financial information even though their efforts are largely funded by tax dollars.
In a Feb. 3 ruling, the court created a special exception to the Texas Public Information Act for information involving communication with lawyers. The ruling allows government entities to cite “consultation with attorneys” as a reason to deny access to information requested under the Public Information Act.
The TPA’s legislative team has identified bills impacting issues of importance to the newspaper industry and members are encouraged to contact them for information on specific legislation. In addition to supporting these efforts editorially, publishers are encouraged to contact their local elected officials and offer to serve as a resource for information if they have questions on bills involving public information issues.
As a national observance, Sunshine Week draws attention to the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. Through the Sunshine Week website, http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org, Texas newspapers have access to materials to help with local efforts, including opinion pieces, fact sheets and editorial cartoons. Most of the materials will be available for download March 9 and 10 for publication starting Sunday, March 12.
Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors and is now coordinated in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. However, the group notes, freedom of information isn’t just a press issue. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.
Executive Vice President Donnis Baggett may be contacted at email@example.com.