March 13, 2005
Happy National Sunshine Week

It's the first ever National Sunshine Week this week.

Opening a dialogue about the public’s right of access to government information is the focus of Sunshine Sunday and Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know, which kick off March 13, 2005 and continue through the following week.

Participating daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, online sites, and radio and television broadcasters will feature editorials, op-eds, editorial cartoons, and news and feature stories that drive public discussion about why open government is important to everyone, not just to journalists.

“This is not just an issue for the press. It’s an issue for the public,” said Andy Alexander, ASNE Freedom of Information chair, who is chief of the Cox Newspapers’ Washington bureau. “An alarming amount of public information is being kept secret from citizens and the problem is increasing by the month. Not only do citizens have a right to know, they have a need to know.

“Our goal is the raise public awareness of this horrible trend that is hurting democracy,” he said of the Sunshine Week project. “We hope that it sparks a public dialogue about the value of open government and the damage to citizens from excessive government secrecy.”

Here's the Chronicle's coverage. Looks like our Lege will be celebrating with a controversial open-government bill.

Rep. Toby Goodman thinks the law is unclear as to whether government officials and their staffs can meet in small groups and discuss public business.

So the Arlington Republican has filed legislation that he thinks clears up the confusion in the state's open-government law. But other lawmakers and activist groups are fighting the bill, saying it is either unnecessary or would diminish Texans' access to government.


Last week, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott urged the Legislature to pass bills filed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, that would require all local and state officials to undergo open-government training.

The goal of the bills is to help standardize training and emphasize the need for both elected and appointed government officials to understand the state's open-government laws, Wentworth said.

Abbott said his office is flooded with requests for open-records rulings. He said the number of requests has risen by 44 percent in the past two years, and his office issues about 45 rulings per day.

Abbott is asking the Legislature for nine more employees to help with the load. In fiscal 2004, the Open Records Division received 11,355 requests from officials about the nature of their records and whether they should be disclosed to the public.

Goodman's bill would allow government officials to hold meetings in numbers less than a quorum, as long as information discussed is not shared with other people. There would be limitations on what could be discussed.

Currently, terms such as "meeting" and "deliberation" can have several meanings, which can affect how people interpret the law, Goodman said.

"Any Billy Bob who is elected to City Council in Lamesa, Texas, (could) get a pamphlet on open meetings and say this is what I can do and this is what I can't do" if his bill becomes law, he said.

But Wentworth, a longtime advocate of open government, thinks the bill is regressive. He said the bill encourages less sunshine on government because officials and staff could begin to deliberate in private, something he worked for years to prohibit.

"If they were merely being briefed by their staff it would be OK, but most of those meetings quickly changed from briefing to discussion, debate, deliberation, and that's not allowed under the law," Wentworth said. "It's a bad, bad bill."

Katherine Garner, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said her group opposes the bill because the language is vague.

"(The bill) is ripe for abuse as far as we're concerned," she said. "This basically allows groups to meet privately and guts the open-meetings law to some extent."

Goodman's bill is HB305. My gut says it's well-intentioned but misguided, but I'm open to persuasion on that.

Vince has some background on open records laws in Texas and his experiences with filing open records requests.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 13, 2005 to National news | TrackBack

THAT explains why my local paper had this article on the front page above the fold. As I was carrying it inside I said "Huh. They've committed real journalism."

Posted by: Linkmeister on March 13, 2005 6:49 PM