Houston Chronicle: Greater Houston Partnership undermines good government by avoiding open records

Houston Chronicle
Opinion/Editorials Staff
Originally published Dec. 12, 2014

The Texas Public Information Act was one of the Texas Legislature’s grand achievements under the reform-oriented first term of Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. So it is with an ironic twist that the Greater Houston Partnership, chaired by the former lieutenant governor’s son, has spent the past several years trying to avoid key components of that very law.

The fight dates back to 2007, when Montgomery County resident Jim Jenkins filed an open records request to see how taxpayer funds were being spent at Houston’s supersized business development organization. Transparency is necessary for well-run government, and Jenkins should have every right to follow his dollars. But the GHP didn’t agree. The partnership has since argued its way through the Texas judiciary, holding that its government contracts weren’t subject to public scrutiny. Earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court stood on the side of taxpayers by refusing to hear the GHP’s lawsuit.

For a judiciary routinely accused of being overly cozy with businesses, our state courts have held an admirably strong line on government transparency, wherever it is found. Now Houstonians can now look forward to seeing the healthy shine of sunlight on the GHP’s check register.

Not every government contractor is subject to this sort of scrutiny. Our state’s public information act allows companies that only act as vendors to keep their books closed – a construction company hired by the city to repair a roof doesn’t have to open its financial records to the public. But the GHP isn’t some mere vendor. Created in 1989 as a merger of the Houston’s Economic Development Council, Chamber of Commerce and World Trade Association, the GHP practically serves as an arm of local governance. Attracting businesses to Houston, promoting long-term economic development and shaping the city’s agenda are all part of GHP’s thick portfolio.

For example, as the district court judge in this case pointed out in 2010, one of GHP’s contracts with the city involved the partnership executing a “10-yr strategic plan for the industry cluster groups […] identified in the Mayor’s Task Force Report on Economic Development.”

The GHP doesn’t merely follow government orders, like some vendor. Instead, the GHP works with the city, hand-in-hand, to make policy.

When City Hall delegates its own decision-making responsibilities to the GHP, the open-record spotlight should follow. Otherwise, key functions of elected government could easily be hidden within the offices of opaque nonprofits.

The pressure to shrink government leads elected officials to rely on the private sector to fulfill traditional government duties, and while there may be some efficiencies to be found, there is nothing efficient about undermining government accountability.

In a disappointing turn of events, however, the GHP has announced that it will cancel its contracts with local governments in an attempt to avoid all this transparency (“Partnership severs local government ties over public data requests,” Page B2, Dec. 5).

Whether acting as a Houston Community College watchdog, lobbying the Legislature for Houston, or working to fight discrimination, the GHP has a proud record of helping our city. It is a record that GHP shouldn’t be afraid to submit to the public eye.