Originally published March 15, 2015
There’s a bit of irony, and perhaps coincidence, that a 16-month-old case regarding a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act during a November 2013 Weslaco City Commission meeting was finally resolved last week, right before today’s start of Sunshine Week.
The case, of course, involved former City Commissioner Joe Martinez, ex-Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar and current Commissioners David Fox, Lupe Rivera and Jerry Tafolla, who on Thursday agreed to probation and fines for their part in closing the public meeting. The five will each serve up to two years of probation and 40 hours community service and will pay a $250 pretrial diversion fee, $260 in court costs and $60 per month probation fee, the Mid-Valley Town Crier’s Michael Rodriguez reported.
And although the terms of this pretrial diversion program might not seem stiff or unreasonable, the very notion that penalties in such a case were doled out, at all, is a win for public transparency.
As journalists, we strive to expose, or shed sunlight, on government inefficiencies, wrongdoing and inaccuracy. To do so, however, we must have access to public meetings, as should taxpayers, whom elected officials and government agencies ultimately report to.
The very fact that the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s office was able to get the defendants to agree to such conditions and for the case to have been pursued for this long shows the importance of such a case in today’s society. Without such checks and balances and without open meeting laws, we have no control or knowledge of what or how our elected officials are conducting business with taxpayer money.
This case “really recognizes the importance of the law and how the law needs to be followed and for holding these public officials accountable,” Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told us. “We have a strong tradition for openness and the public’s right to know in our state and that’s what this case is about. And a case like this is an example of where these laws are put to use.”
Indeed. And we hope the resolution of this case, will force other politicians and government agencies to realize the importance of adhereing to our state’s sunshine laws, especially during Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week was started 10 years ago by newspaper editors to highlight the importance of keeping our government’s activities and information open to the public. It coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of our Constitution and co-author of the Federalist Papers, which promoted the ideals of open government — which our country was firmly founded.