Former President John Adams once said: “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.” Adams’ sage advice carries a special meaning as we celebrate Sunshine Week 2019.
Sunshine Week is a time set aside for educating the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of sustained secrecy. This year’s theme is “It’s your right to know,” which fits nicely with this session’s big bipartisan push for strengthening the Texas Public Information Act.
The opening preamble of the public information act states: “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 that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” That’s about as crisp and direct as anything you’ll read in the Texas Government Code.
And yet, the public information act in principle bears little resemblance to the law in practice. Today’s transparency tool is a rather dull and sometimes ineffective version of what it aspires to be, due in large part to a handful of unfavorable court decisions and legislative carve-outs.
Case-in-point: the city of McAllen’s controversial 2015 concert.
The city spent public money to host Latin pop artist Enrique Iglesias at its Christmas concert. When the local newspaper submitted a public records request to find out how much the city spent, officials withheld the information citing the Texas Supreme Court’s 2015 Boeing decision. In that case, the court ruled that companies doing business with government could seek to have their contracts and other information in government custody withheld from the public based on a claim that releasing the documents would create a competitive disadvantage.
To this day, McAllen refuses to disclose how much public money was spent on the Spanish singing sensation.
Of course, McAllen isn’t the only city guilty of keeping secrets under Boeing. The attorney general’s office has issued opinions in about 2,700 cases keeping some or all of the requested information from the public because of Boeing. And that number continues to climb.
Thankfully, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle seem to recognize the problem here and have put forward a slew of different proposals to restore the public’s right to know about their government. One bill, House Bill 81, would even try to prevent future Enrique-like situations by requiring the disclosure of all receipts and expenditures for parades, concerts and other entertainment events if public monies were used.
It’s too early in the legislative session to know whether any of these reforms will make it all the way through the process, but there’s clearly a hunger for change. Too few are well served by the status quo, especially if the goal is making sure that Texans have control over their publicly-funded instruments.
So this Sunshine Week, let’s all take a moment to celebrate government transparency. Because without it, we may all be in danger of losing something precious: liberty.