Dallas Morning News: Transparency is hope for citizens, foil for officeholders

The Dallas Morning News
Originally published March 18, 2014

There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.”

Joseph Pulitzer

This is Sunshine Week, a time to celebrate and advocate for truth and transparency. And although our iWorld of websites, smartphones and laptops might be unrecognizable to Pulitzer and other turn-of-the-20th-century purveyors of “new journalism,” they would no doubt recognize — and lament — one aspect: the seemingly never-ending quest to force greater transparency from government.

That struggle is not merely the province of journalists. The overwhelming majority of requests through the federal Freedom of Information Act and the state’s Public Information Act are made by the general public, not news outlets. Which makes sense because, after all, it is regular folks who really suffer the consequences of lack of transparency.

When police procedures or public housing processes are obscured by lack of transparency, it is public money or public confidence that is lost. One has only to look at the mess that was the investigation into the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines jet to fully understand the ramifications of obscurity over transparency: misinformation, confusion and anxiety.

Transparency is one of those mom-and-apple pie concepts that everyone seems to appreciate — until it’s asked of them. Rare is the candidate who does not embrace the principle of transparency during a campaign. Rare also is the officeholder who totally submits to it as the pressures and complexities of governing intensify.

In one of his first acts on his first day in office, President Barack Obama followed through on candidate Obama’s pledge of transparency by signing the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. But signing was the easy part. Six years later, an analysis by The Associated Press found that Obama’s administration has denied FOIA requests at a record pace. In six years, federal agencies censored or fully denied access in 36 percent of all requests. In an additional 28 percent of cases, the government said it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or it was determined the request was unreasonable or improper.

In Dallas, the city attorney’s office had to send a memo to City Council members reminding them that taking straw votes behind closed doors is not OK. Actually, it’s illegal. The watchdog Center for Public Integrity found that Dallas had one of the highest rates among Texas cities in 2011 for filing requests with the Texas attorney general to keep government information secret. It was ninth in the state. McKinney was first, Garland third, Mesquite fourth, Plano fifth, Arlington sixth and Fort Worth eighth.

The top 10 of secrecy is not the kind of ranking North Texas should be dominating.

Texas by the numbers in 2011

Requests by Texas cities to the attorney general in 2011 to keep government information secret, per 100,000 residents:

1. McKinney, 324

2. McAllen, 234

3. Garland, 198

4. Mesquite, 170

5. Plano, 169

6. Arlington, 165

7. Corpus Christi, 134

8. Fort Worth, 113

9. Dallas, 90

10. El Paso, 78

SOURCE: Center for Public Integrity