Editorial published in The Brownsville Herald and (Harlingen) Valley Morning Star on March 13:
Many students (and their parents and teachers) might consider Spring Break one of the most important weeks of the year. This week also has special significance for news media and those who recognize the importance of keeping the ray of public scrutiny shining on government offices and officials.
It’s Sunshine Week, dedicated to reminding people of the need to maintain open government and freedom of information. It was inaugurated in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and is held each year to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and co-author of the Federalist Papers.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has since signed on to help organize the week, and many other organizations lend support.
This year’s commemoration brings mixed news. Texas is fortunate to have some of the best-written laws protecting the people’s right to know what their officials are doing and how their tax dollars are being spent. Many elements of the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act have been used as guides for proposed federal open-government laws.
Unfortunately, those laws, while well written are anemically enforced; penalties often are light when they are enforced. And the laws are under constant attack by officials who prefer to use their influence and public money out of public view, where it’s easier to steer decisions and funds to favored friends and relatives. Some officials have sued the state, arguing that the Open Meetings Act violates their First Amendment right to assemble and speak freely. In other words, they argue that they have a constitutional right to meet in secret and deny people information about what their public officials are up to.
Officials also are fighting to escape requirements for public notices such as meeting announcements and requests for proposals, which normally are posted in general-circulation publications such as this newspaper. The officials argue that such notices are costly, and want to post them solely on their respective websites. Publishers argue that cost is a small fraction of their expenses, and the need for third-party publication is critical. Not only do more people read newspapers than have Internet access, but announcement through an independent party ensures that the officials don’t post a notice after the fact, but with an effective date that falsely makes it appear that they met legal requirements for advance notice.
Fortunately, many government entities do recognize the need to keep their constituents informed, and know how it helps maintain the public’s trust. Sunshine Review, a national group that promotes open government, recently handed out its annual Sunny Awards to 12 cities, four counties and five school districts in Texas that maintained the most transparent websites in the country. Only one state, Florida with 28, had more recipients this year.
No Sunny winners were from the Rio Grande Valley, which has the sad reputation as a den of corruption and patronage. Officials here are more likely to see public scrutiny as an obstacle to their nefarious operations, rather than an opportunity to show the public how openly and honestly they operate.
We hope efforts like the Sunny Awards, Sunshine Week and other efforts help convince public officials that transparency will be recognized and celebrated, and help draw the support of a grateful public.