By Kelley Shannon
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
It’s quite simple, really.
We Texans have a right to know how our taxpayer dollars are spent.
It’s our money. We, the people, choose our government. Our elected public officials represent us. They manage and spend our tax money. But we, the people,get to decide whether they are doing it well.
To do that, we need light shining on the workings of our government. But that essential element of our democracy is in jeopardy in Texas.
Taxpayers are being denied information about government contracts with private companies and about tax dollars flowing into large non-profit organizations.
Why? Two Texas Supreme Court rulings in 2015 weakened the Texas Public Information Act and allowed this blocking of information. It’s conceivable that the court’s justices did not envision how wide the swath of secrecy would grow in the wake of their decisions.
Now, in response, more than a dozen diverse organizations have come together to form the non-partisan Texas Sunshine Coalition to ensure our government doesn’t operate in the dark.
“The Texas Sunshine Coalition is dedicated to restoring the Texas Public Information Act to serve its intended purpose,” the coalition explainson its website at www.txsunshine.org. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is a coalition member.
Today, not only are the guts of public contracts with private firms often kept secret, but sometimes the final contract amount is, too, because companies argue it could put them in a disadvantage in a future bidding situation.
Contracts for a public power plant, police body camera equipment, college sports marketing deals, a holiday parade entertainer and many more spending agreements are off limits to the public. Sometimes there are attempts to hide licensing and regulatory data or information about hiring decisions.
In Austin, city officials argued they should be allowed to hide the identities of finalists in their city manager search because it would put them at a competitive disadvantage with other cities. Thankfully, that argument to the Texas Attorney General’s Office failed.
But some 2,600 attempts to block information using the court’s recent secrecy rulings have been permitted by the Attorney General’s Office because of how broadly the court’s decisions were written.
That’s where we, the people, and our elected state representatives come in.
Legislators created the Texas Public Information Act. It’s time for them to take charge and ensure that the law once again benefits the people of our state by rewriting some language in the law to address the court’s actions.
To be fair, not all private businesses, which now have far more ability to keep government records private, come down on the side of secrecy.
Many recognize that if they are paid by taxpayer money, a certain level of transparency is warranted. Openness in government bidding also helps small and mid-sized businesses compete with big business for public contracts because the smaller companies can view the past winning bids.
Let’s also be clear on this: There’s no effort afoot to force a private company to reveal the formula for its secret sauce. There has always been a trade secrets exemption in the Public Information Act to keep that kind of information private, and that should remain.
Common ground for solving this secrecy struggle is surely achievable.
This and other government transparency issues are on the agenda at the FOI Foundation of Texas state conference Sept. 21 in Austin.
The conference will also focus on whether dates of birth should be available on certain public records, such as candidate applications for public office and criminal justice records; how governments can go about obtaining public records stored on private electronic devices; and whether there should be limits to free speech on college campuses.
Opinions vary on many of these questions, but working together we can figure out how to balance competing interests. We can do this.
Perhaps along the way we will remember the wise words of the Texas Public Information Act declaring that the people insist on remaining informed and “that government is the servant and not the master of the people.”
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which advocates for open government and First Amendment rights. For information on the Sept. 21 state conference go to www.foift.org.