Victoria Advocate editor on FOIFT and the public’s right to know

By Chris Cobler
The Victoria Advocate
Originally published March 3, 2014

The Calhoun County Republican Club invited me to speak Monday about an organization near and dear to my heart, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

Many thanks to them for being such a welcoming and engaged audience. Here is a copy of my prepared remarks:

I am honored to speak on behalf of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. It is a nonprofit organization that helps news organizations and the public across the state make sure the public’s business is done in public.

I’d like to start by quoting one of my favorite founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. In 1787, hewrote this:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

I quote Jefferson because I believe upholding the First Amendment is a conservative principle that all Americans should vigorously support. As Jefferson wrote, a free press and an educated citizenry are absolutely essential to a nation that practices self-government. Our democracy depends upon it.

If this feels like an abstract and archaic concept far removed from Calhoun County and the Crossroads, let’s consider some recent examples close to home:

— Last spring, four members of the Victoria City Council got together before a meeting and formed an illegal walking quorum. What that means is they decided before the meeting how they would vote on the question of a runoff election after the incument mayor dropped out of the race. When elected officials conduct their discussion outside of a public meeting, then the public is denied the ability to know why and how they reached their decisions.

This is probably one of the most common violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. That’s because it’s so difficult to prove without evidence provided through the Texas Public Information Act and without aggressive enforcement by the local district attorney or the state Attorney General’s Office. In this case, three of the four City Council members refused to release their records which would have helped prove what they did before the meeting in question. The Victoria City Attorney lacked the enforcement power to compel the three council members — his bosses — to release the records. The AG’s office refused to act on this loophole.

We’ve made the Freedom of Information Foundation aware of the problem, which also has come up elsewhere in Texas. It’s on our list of corrective bills we hope to have introduced in the next legislative session. One of the most important roles the Freedom of Information Foundation plays is to actively lobby on behalf of the pubilc’s right to know during each legislative session.

Unfortunately, every legislative session, we spend too much time playing defense against legislators trying to close more records and more meetings. And, what’s worse, many of these attempts to close records and meetings are promoted by public employees’ lobbying groups, including the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Municipal League.

You’d like to think these organizations would be promoting the public’s right to know because they exist only because of public tax dollars. Sadly, that’s not how it works out. Instead, they want to work in secret and not be bothered with pesky questions from reporters or from the public. They know what’s best for us, right?

— I say this not to disparage public employees because I think most are hard-working and want to do the right thing. But I’ve been in this business long enough to know people handling other people’s money have to be watched. That was the case in Goliad last year, where our six-month investigation revealed a program designed to promote economic development had become a $1 million mess.

Elected and appointed public officials in Goliad were handing out loans to friends and family members. Many of the loans were being defaulted on without penalty. Goliad officials didn’t even have accurate records of where the money had gone.

The Texas Rangers continue their criminal investigation of this mess, and we are continuing to follow the story, too. What’s important for this speech is that none of this would have been exposed without our access to public records and public meetings. Our lead reporter on the story requested pages upon pages of documents to piece together the financial mess. Even before that, a concerned Goliad resident requested public records and shared what she had with our reporter.

Open records and open meetings laws exist for all of us. Please don’t think about them as something that just helps nosy reporters. They help all of us keep our government accountable.

— In another example this primary elections, a candidate for Victoria treasurer listed several of her donors as anonymous. She said it was because they requested this. The problem is that’s not how our open elections are supposed to work. Everyone who donates more than $50 to a candidate must do so publicly.

Natalia Luna Ashley, interim executive director of the Texas State Ethics Commission, explained why in our news story revealing the campaign violation:

The law is written “so voters can make an informed decision about candidates as they go to vote,” Ashley said. “In addition, I think it is not only to allow voters to make informed decisions but to ensure the public’s confidence and trust in the elections and in its government.”

Trust in our government. This is what the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas stands for.

— Last but not least is the subject that prompted the request for this talk by someone from the Freedom of Information Foundation: The Calhoun County Commission settled an employment discrimination case using taxpayer money but refused to tell taxpayers how much they spent. This stance should concern everyone who supports democratic principles. You can’t spend public money in secret. If elected officials are able to do that, how are voters supposed to be able to judge the job they are doing?

After six months of legal fighting and with the help of a Freedom of Information Foundation attorney and finally a state Attorney General’s opinion in our favor, we managed to get the Calhoun commissioners to release the secret settlement. Turns out the woman suing received $125,000 in the settlement. It matters little whether you or I think that dollar amount is too high or too low or just right. What matters is we know it. The public’s business must be done in public.

If you have elected officials who think the public shouldn’t know how its money is being spent or why they’re voting the way they are, then you need to act. You need to vote them out of office on Election Day.

I don’t understand why it’s such popular sport these days to bash the press when the Fourth Estate is the best check and balance on government we have. Each of our three branches of government — the executive, judicial and legislative — is supposed to serve as a check and balance against the abuses of the other two. Of course, we know from history that this isn’t enough. That’s where the Fourth Estate, a free and unfettered press, comes in. We monitor and report on what all of our government is doing.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis offered this famous quote in 1913: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Dirty politics and dirty government exist only in darkness.

In the local examples I’ve listed, you’ll find both Republicans and Democrats. Both parties are equal opportunity offenders of open meetings and records laws.

At the Victoria Advocate, our focus is on the Crossroads and its governing bodies. By working with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, we’re in a much stronger position to do that. That’s why I’m here to ask for your support of the Freedom of Information Foundation and, even more importantly, your vote on behalf of the public’s right to know. You won’t find this question on Tuesday’s ballot, but it should be the first one you ask every candidate you meet.