Government transparency challenged in Texas

Published on Sunday, 10 March 2019 21:00
Written by The Dallas Morning News

Texas’ highest criminal court has added another dangerous layer to the cloak of secrecy around how some government officials want to conduct our business.

We say “our” because we elect these officials to be good stewards of our tax dollars and to represent us on issues that affect our communities.

For the sake of accountability, the public has a right to know what our representatives are doing.

We’re concerned that a ruling last week from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will keep us in the dark.

The court dealt a major blow to transparency when it struck down a portion of the open meetings law that makes it a crime for officials to circumvent quorum rules to hold “secret deliberations.”

The court’s wrong-headed ruling called the provision “unconstitutionally vague.” We see it as another excuse for government bodies to usurp the spirit of this important law.

Turns out, in Texas, there’s plenty of reasons for worry.

This was once a state that led the nation in transparency. But now, Texas continues to suffer the fallout from a June 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling that allowed key details of government contracts to be withheld as guarded secrets.

Dozens of government bodies have since cited this ruling to keep secret what were once routine items of public disclosure.

Want to know the dollar amounts for a municipal power plant being built in Denton? Too bad. Likewise, the public was blocked from viewing brain concussion research efforts at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

And it took a lawsuit to keep Austin from withholding names of city manager finalists.

Most open government experts believe the ruling is being used in ways the courts never intended. We see the same kind of potential for a slippery slope with this week’s quorum ruling.

That’s why we’re so encouraged to see bills filed by several lawmakers to reverse the troubling trends.

Gov. Greg Abbott deserves credit for releasing a statement supporting the importance of transparency.

We hope agencies heed his counsel.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Editorials on Sunday, 10 March 2019 21:00. Updated: Sunday, 10 March 2019 21:03.