By Kelley Shannon
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
CORPUS CHRISTI – The public must have access to information about how taxpayer money is spent and other basic government data, transparency advocates said Thursday at a forum organized by state Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi.
The event focused on the importance of access to information in holding government accountable.
“This isn’t partisan,” Hunter told the audience at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. He noted that many people say they are in favor of transparency, but he said some leaders do not take action and allow special interests to quash open government legislation.
“It’s no longer time to talk. It’s time to walk,” he said. “It’s time to stand up.”
Hunter said the Corpus Christi discussion was a starting point for the 2019 legislative session and the passage of “significant, real changes in the law.” He said Texas needs to regain its VIP status when it comes to open government.
Several court rulings have eroded the Texas Public Information Act, which provides for citizens’ rights to access their government’s information and for more than 40 years was considered one of the strongest open records laws in the nation.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey and recovery from the storm, the coastal region has a “new view” of the role of open government and should set a standard for the rest of Texas, Hunter said.
Tim Archuleta, editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and a member of the FOI Foundation of Texas board, urged government officials to decide to embrace transparency and to strive to do business with private companies that value public access to information.
Two Texas Supreme Court rulings in 2015, known as the Boeing and Greater Houston Partnership decisions, have kept many government contracts with the private sector off limits to public view, explained Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of Texas Press Association.
“You cannot have accountability without information,” Baggett said.
Tom Whitehurst, opinion editor of the Caller-Times, said that the Texas Public Information Act has always permitted the withholding of legitimate trade secrets, such as the secret formula for Dr Pepper. But the spending of taxpayer money needs to be accessible to the public, he said.
Regarding other government-held data, Josh Hinkle, investigative executive producer and reporter at KXAN-TV in Austin, and Marina Riker, a reporter at the Victoria Advocate, said that access to dates of birth, police records and other documents are essential in accurate, accountable news reporting.
Riker told of the Victoria Advocate’s effort to obtain to a copy of the city’s emergency plan after Hurricane Harvey. Initially, government officials would not release the plan, citing worries about possible terrorism, even though many jurisdictions post theirs online and it has been established that public knowledge of and participation in these plans is beneficial.
Ultimately, the emergency plan was released, and the public was able to see it and scrutinize it. Riker noted that there have been no adverse consequences from releasing the plan.
Former Caller-Times publisher Libby Averyt, currently the chief development officer of United Way of the Coastal Bend, and Bob White, retired general manager of KIII-TV in Corpus Christi, moderated Thursday’s panel discussions.