You likely won't hear about it in the nation's
major media outlets, but recent events suggest Texas may be doing
the best job of letting sunlight shine on state government. In the
process it's establishing a benchmark for others.
The big news is the recent decision of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to hire an experienced prosecutor as the first attorney ever placed on the state payroll to prosecute violations of the Texas Public Information Act. Abbott's move means state and local bureaucrats who prefer to operate behind closed doors could now face the prospect of fines or jail time or both for violating the PIA.
The new prosecutor's "only job in the Office of the Attorney General will be to prosecute open government act violations," Abbott told a recent gathering of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
In 2003 Jack Patton found out just how serious Abbott is about enforcing the public's right to know. That's when he became the first Texas public official ever prosecuted and convicted for violating the PIA. The Patton case led to Abbott's decision to bring on a full-time PIA prosecutor.
Two years ago, Patton, superintendent of the Llano Independent School District in central Texas, refused to make public documents detailing how he and the school board were spending tax dollars. A reporter for the Llano Buzz newspaper and a county commissioner had requested the documents under the PIA. Following a three-month investigation initiated by Abbott and Llano County District Attorney Sam Oatman, Patton was indicted by a grand jury. Once convicted, he was fined $1,000 and received a six-month probated jail sentence.
"I want all government officials to take note of how this case ended," Abbott said after Patton's conviction. "I have said before that I will vigilantly enforce open government laws, and I will protect the public's access to information. It's essential to ensuring public confidence and accountability."
Abbott is a conservative Republican whose predecessor as Attorney General is now the state's junior senator in the nation's capital, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Cornyn is another conservative GOPer who compiled an impressive record of forcing open many previously closed doors of Texas governance.
As attorney general, Cornyn sued several Texas government agencies when they improperly withheld documents that should have been made public. He increased his staff to reduce a nine-month backlog of open records requests to 45 days and established a toll-free hotline to answer citizen questions about the PIA.
Unfortunately, the public's right to know is one of our fundamental liberties that too often gets mostly lip service, regardless of whether the offenders are federal, state or local government officials. Texas illustrates how having high-ranking officials willing to enforce a state's FOI law makes a big difference in the ability of residents to hold officials everywhere accountable. Consider these recent fruits of the Texas PIA:
Smith County Commissioners made policy and management changes after questions were raised about how the county government was handling surplus federal government property. Those questions resulted from documents obtained under the PIA. Among the changes made: the contract for collecting overdue property taxes was awarded to a new firm for the first time in 20 years. "Some county operations that basically have been shrouded from public view for many years have been uncovered for all to see," said a Tyler Morning Telegraph editorial.
The news is not always "bad" when the media use PIA laws to uncover things in government. The Dallas Morning News, for example, used the PIA to obtain more than 1,000 pages of memos, emails and other internal communications from Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Mike Moses to the school board. The story that resulted informed Dallas residents that Moses was doing a good job keeping school board members informed, something that had not been done well by past superintendents.
Whether you live in Texas or in another state, you have a right to know things like how public school officials are spending your tax dollars, how quickly police and fire officials respond to emergencies, whether health department officials are shutting down restaurants that make people sick, and a thousand other things-big and little-that we expect government to do for us.
As Patrick "Give me liberty or give me death" Henry said: "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."
Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire