For anyone still not certain why open government is a necessity, we offer the case of the city of East Mountain.
Now that records and documents are being made public in response to court orders, it also is becoming clear why officials have been so concerned about keeping them from the public eye. The mess in that tiny East Texas town appears deeper than most of us would ever have imagined. It apparently includes multiple employees, family members and businesses.
The latest revelations, that financial controls were so weak or non-existent that the city's general fund was depleted, then its reserve fund and that the city is now meeting day-to-day obligations by spending its water fund, are both shocking and disappointing.
Unfortunately, they are only the latest.
They come after multiple lawsuits against the city, resignations of appointed and elected officials and allegations that East Mountain violated the Texas Constitution by hiring the same person to serve simultaneously as city administrator and police chief.
It is not difficult to see the folly in such an arrangement, and the latest records made public also are beginning to show what it can cost taxpayers.
Still, during a City Council meeting this week some elected officials suggested part of the reason for the city's financial difficulties is that East Mountain has had to spend so much defending open records cases. We will not waste time arguing the chicken or egg question such a silly suggestion raises. Suffice it to say, we reject the notion.
Opinions from the attorney general's office and court decisions make clear that officials' refusal to release information to the public was illegal and improper. And the fact is that if officials had followed the law months ago, whatever East Mountain spent to keep the public from knowing what its officials were up to might still be in the city's accounts — and the city could be further down the road to repairing the damage it has suffered.
This newspaper and, more importantly, several individuals, have sought information through our state's open records law to get to the bottom of the situation in East Mountain. Over the past several months, we have taken heat from those officials — some of whom since have been forced to resign — and their defenders for doing so.
For the News-Journal, which takes seriously its responsibility as a watchdog, facing such fire is a regular part of the job.
Today, we offer our appreciation for the individuals who have spent personal funds and put reputations and relationships on the line in a quest to right what appear to be multiple wrongs in East Mountain city government. They are the true heroes in this story.
They also are the ones who stand as a reminder that laws requiring that the public's business be done in public are not just for journalists or attorneys, but for all of us to use as we seek to hold officials accountable.
In the situation in East Mountain, we are seeing a case where the need for a system of open and accountable government again is being proven.