Let in the light

“Government ought to be all outside and no inside. … Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places,and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety.”

– Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President

Last week was what is known as Sunshine Week in Texas – a time when governmental agencies are supposed espouse the importance of open dialogue and access to public documents and foster a more open relationship with the public.

But why should there be a week to commemorate such an idea when government is supposed to be open to the people 365 days a year, save a few holidays and weekends? And it may come as a surprise to some but as members of the media, this newspaper and others supplying the news across the state are no different from ordinary citizens when it comes to accessing the inner-workings of government.

The records, documents, data, financial expenditures and reimbursements are just as open to John Q. Citizen as they are to the media. The only real difference between a citizen and a journalist is the journalist will usually fight harder, longer and louder when denied the basic rights of access guaranteed under Texas law.For years, The Examiner has fought a continuous battle with BISD over public information. It has not been easy, and it has not been cheap. However, every dollar spent and every hour exhausted has been worth it so the public will know how its money is being spent.

But the fight is not limited to BISD. When Beaumont City Attorney Tyrone Cooper cut a backroom deal for an NBA superstar, The Examiner stepped up and called him out, and at least some information about the secret deal came to light.

Vidor Independent School District fought The Examiner on an open records request all the way to the Travis County District Court before throwing in the towel. The district learned that this newspaper will never give up.

For those wanting to get information from a public entity, all you should have to do is ask, according to the law. All public entities must comply, and they are not allowed to assess exorbitant fees or take months to provide the information – but reality is usually different. Luckily, if someone feels the law is being violated, there are remedies.

According to Texas Government Code Section 552, public entities must “provide information.” Some take that to mean they have 10 business days, but that is not the law. The law gives 10 days to ask the attorney general if the information is public, not to fulfill the request.

Contrary to the beliefs of many public employees and elected officials, the records they fight so hard to keep hidden away aren’t theirs to hide. They belong to the public, and you should never be hesitant to look at how your tax dollars are being spent, where your elected officials are going on city business or how much money they are giving out.