Static is glad to see that Attorney General Greg Abbott is back in court defending the Texas Open Meetings Act. The law, which essentially ensures that the public’s business be done in the light of day and not in back rooms and private conversations, is under attack by some towns and by a sprinkling of city officials from around the state (“The War on Sunshine,” May 19, 2010). In a federal lawsuit filed in Pecos, the officials are complaining that the law is an unconstitutional breach of their right to free speech. (Static has two words for that argument: Hog. Wash.)
Abbott has filed a brief arguing that open government protects citizens’ freedoms rather than violating them. The officials’ lawsuit, he said in a release, would turn the First Amendment on its head. “The First Amendment protects citizens against government oppression — not government against citizen oversight,” the brief says. The lawsuit “is about protecting not free speech but secret speech.”
What the city officials really dislike, apparently, is not so much the law itself as the idea that they could actually be held accountable for violating it (including by going to jail). Their suit talks about the need to remove criminal penalties in order to “unshackle Texas elected officials” so they can do their jobs.
Please. Public officials running around “unshackled” from the need to conduct public business in public is the last thing Texas needs more of. In North Texas alone, it seems that every week brings new examples of bureaucrats and elected officials looking for new ways to keep the public from interfering with their plans — whether it’s Fort Worth city staffers trying to rush parks board members (see our cover story, page 10) or the city council itself into voting on issues without sufficient notice, or Tarrant County College board leaders voting on a $700,000 parachute for a disgraced chancellor under an extremely vague agenda item, or state environmental officials repeatedly hiding and misrepresenting the results of air quality tests involving gas drilling.
It’s enough to make you want to contribute to a fund for investigative journalism. Wait — those exist! You can whip out that checkbook right now and bestow a few bucks on the excellent Investigative Reporters and Editors group or online investigative publications like Pro Publica, Texas Watchdog, the Texas Tribune, the Center for Public Integrity — or heck, just buy a beer for the next Fort Worth Weekly scribe you see counting his or her pennies at the bar.