Let the sunshine in

The words of the Texas Public Information Act don’t exactly roll off the tongue like fine poetry, but there is beauty in this law:

“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.

“The people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

The Texas Public Information Act outlines what you can and can’t expect from your school board, city council and other governing bodies.

In a democracy, things get better when individual people get involved. They expect more from their representatives who have signed on to educate children, pave roads and provide running water.

We think the Texas Public Information Act is key to making governments work for people. It applies to all government bodies. That includes all boards, commissions and committees created by the executive or legislative branch. It also applies to any body that is supported – to any extent – by public funds or that spends public funds. The law says that, in general, each person is entitled at all times to complete information about the affairs of government.

Some of these governmental or quasi-governmental agencies find the law inconvenient. They would rather conduct public business in secret behind closed doors or under a mist of obfuscation or concealment. Unfortunately for them, that is illegal, but it is up to the rest of us to make them come correct and let the sunshine in.

There are a few common-sense exceptions involving personnel, pending litigation, competitive bids and some legal matters – typically those fall within attorney-client privilege – but even those are narrowly drawn and are often misused in an attempt to conceal matters that must be disclosed. Sometimes an opinion from the Texas Attorney General is required to compel disclosure.

News organizations make frequent use of the Texas Public Information Act to obtain records from governmental agencies, but members of the public can use the same law to obtain any record for any reason – or for no reason beyond simple curiosity. That’s the way our American constitutional form of representative government works.

When Gerald Ford was president, he did not produce many memorable quotations. But shortly after he escorted his ousted predecessor to a helicopter on the day he was sworn in as president, Ford eloquently echoed Alexander Hamilton and William McKinley in capturing the essence of our democracy: “Here the people rule.”