Saturday, February 17, 2018

Editorial: Public officials must reverse trend toward keeping secrets

March 15, 2017 at 11:52 p.m.
Updated March 20, 2017 at 1:09 p.m.

A couple of news stories this week reminded us that, too often, officials forget this fact about our state's open government laws: They make clear the correct response to requests for information is to hand it over.

Government information belongs to the public, according to the law, and officials should strive to make it available to them.

Increasingly, though, the knee-jerk reaction when information is requested is to deny and delay.

We were reminded of that troubling trend with the release this week of a preliminary autopsy report in a Longview homicide case. It became public only after the Texas attorney general told the Gregg County district attorney to make it so.

Until fairly recently, everyone understood such reports almost always are public records that should be open to anyone who wishes to see them. But the district attorney has taken to submitting every request to the Texas Attorney General's Office.

At best, that is a delaying tactic that flies in the face of the intent of the state law.

As a reminder to officials, then, here is what the law says: If you have the information being sought — on salaries, bids, contracts, etc. — you hand it over. Without delay.

Yes, if public officials are unclear about whether the information is public, they can ask the attorney general for an opinion. But that should only apply in cases that may not have come up before.

Unfortunately, according to another story published this week such delaying tactics are happening more and more. The story published Sunday found that in 2001, local governments forwarded about 5,000 requests to the attorney general's office for review. By last year, that number had soared to 27,000. Even if the number of open records requests increased at such a rate, that represents far too many local officials passing the buck to Austin.

As we said, it is most often just a delaying tactic. Sometimes the person seeking the documents will give up in frustration. If the material is released weeks or months later, it may be moot.

In practice, such tactics serve mainly to diminish the ability of the public to interact with their government. That has multiple negative effects in a system such as ours.

But public officials here in East Texas and across our state can do their part to reverse this troubling trend. They can show respect for the taxpayers who finance everything they do and commit to providing prompt responses to requests for information. Instead of thinking of ways to delay their reply or hide information, they should focus on fulfilling requests.

That would be a good approach anytime, but is worth emphasizing this week. We are in the middle of Sunshine Week, an annual observance led by supporters of open government to emphasize the importance of access to public records and public meetings.

Please do not make the mistake of thinking this applies only to journalists who seek and work with public records as part of their livelihood. Transparency is important to any taxpayer who has a question about how his money is being spent by the people he elected or who wants to see how they are conducting the people's business.

The right to know is a key tenet of our system of government and one we must not allow officials to ignore.



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