There’s good news and threatening news out of the bill hopper in Austin for Sunshine Week, the national observance of the public’s right to know what goes on within government.
On the upside, state lawmakers are finding new ways to provide a view into the inner workings of government. But then there are some insidious ideas that would do the reverse. A sampling:
The beauty of accessible online databases has been discovered by multiple lawmakers. One, Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, wants the state comptroller’s website to keep a searchable database detailing the taxes collected and debt incurred by every taxing district. Paxton’s bill (SB 843) would create a taxpayer-friendly portal. And more: A bill by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, (HB 1487) would require the comptroller’s website to include a searchable function on the purposes of grants awarded by the state.
Many government agencies now voluntarily keep online checkbooks showing the purpose and recipient of each check. A bill by Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, (HB 284) would make them mandatory for school districts. A similar bill by Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, (HB 1529) would impose the requirement on districts of 50,000-plus population.
Fallon also filed a bill (HB 889) requiring school districts and cities of at least 50,000 to webcast their meetings and archive the recordings. This newspaper likes that as much as a bill by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, (HB 31) to put the same requirement on university system boards. It makes government accessible.
A snappy moniker makes a good bill better, and Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has both with his Freedom to Film Act (SB 897). Noting the disturbing trend of police officers who harass citizens who record them on public property with camera phones, Estes said his bill would offer protection for a perfectly legal activity.
Some of the stinkers would shield the identity and activities of law enforcement officers when it might not be in the public’s interest.
A bill by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, (SB 988) would blow a big hole in the Public Information Act. It would allow a police agency to withhold, barring a court order, “records of telephone calls, text messages, e-mails or other electronic communications to which a peace officer is a party.”
The very point of the act is to make sure the public has a clear view of how public officials carry out their duties, and this overbroad bill mocks that intent.
A bill by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, (HB 1632) would make an officer’s date of birth confidential information, which could prevent proper identification of someone involved in a highly public event.
One fundamental in defending transparency is that you don’t leave it to government to tell government’s story. The pitfalls are as obvious as the fox’s mayhem in the henhouse.
And so it’s obvious why defenders of transparency are digging in against repeat efforts in the Legislature to sweep aside provisions in law requiring local governments to put certain public notices in newspapers, from bid solicitations to meetings on tax rates.
Make no mistake: The effort is the handiwork of government lobbyists. This session, one offending bill is being carried by freshman Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. His HB 335 would let a government agency satisfy the notice requirement by posting information on its own website. That ostensibly would reap savings in the cost of notices paid by taxpayers. The reality is that local governments spend a tiny fraction of their budgets on legal notices. And that money is a smart investment in an independent, archived, permanent source of government information.
To bury that several clicks beneath a city hall’s or school district’s home page would be putting it in a convenient place for insiders alone.
If a school district or city wants to advertise for bids, the custodian of that notice needs to be an independent third party between government and potential vendor. Notice of a land-use hearing or the sale of property should not be controlled by the agency deciding the outcome. That invites corruption.
Of course, newspapers have a financial interest in the status quo, but that jibes with this industry’s watchdog role. Every corner of a newspaper — from front-page exposés to the small print of public notices — might reflect the taxpayer’s business on a given day.
That business should be displayed where the maximum number of citizens can see it.
The Dallas Morning News