The state level is a mix and match of some openness and an incredible amount of opacity. That is why groups like Texas Watchdog are worth their weight in gold. According to their site they are “a news Web site and training center that scrutinizes the actions of government agencies, bureaucracies and politicians in Texas. It is an independent, nonpartisan entity founded on the belief that our American democracy depends on transparency in government.” They have been doing excellent work bringing Texas into the light and keeping their elected officials accountable. This is why we welcome Jennifer Peebles to share her experience advocating for transparency in Texas. – Nisha Thompson
By JENNIFER PEEBLES With 254 counties, 1,200 school districts and a population of about 24 million, the commercials are right: Texas really is like a whole other country.
It’s also a country where you have no legal right to know who has applied to be your kid’s next school superintendent, where public officials think open meetings laws trample their free speech rights, and where state legislators keep paper records of who is snooping in their ethics forms.
As the deputy editor for Texas Watchdog, a Houston-based nonprofit news site that launched about a year ago, I advocate for government transparency and try to help average folks who are trying to get government information. We request a lot of records for our own investigative reports as well as just to upload to the Web so that journalists, citizen-journalists and just plain citizens can access them more easily. Texans are proud of their public records law and like to say it’s one of the best in the nation. Indeed, the mechanism it created — in which the state attorney general acts as a sort of judge or mediator and determines what’s public and what isn’t — has proved to be much better than in Tennessee, where I lived and worked for several years, and where you basically have to sue a government agency that won’t cough up a record you want.
Texas Watchdog has had several contested records cases get punted to the attorney general in our first year, and overall, we’ve won a majority of them, including getting access to most of Houston Mayor Bill White’s calendar, employee salary information from the county around Corpus Christi, and most recently, e-mails between Houston’s public transit agency and a well-paid consultant in California who was hired without competitive bids.
On the other hand, we’ve also lost some records battles that we wish we could have won, such as access to financial and other information for a nonprofit agency that was set up by the Houston Airport System so that its employees could build and run airports in Latin America and elsewhere. That one, in particular, bugs me.
But legislators have also written some exemptions into the law that rebuke transparency. Want to know who has applied to be the next superintendent of your school district? You have no right to know that in Texas — those records are closed until the school board or school trustees settle on one “finalist” for the job who, obviously, is all but hired by then.
Want to know which Texas Highway Patrol troopers failed polygraphs or had criminal charges on their records when they were hired?
Too bad — all polygraph results and criminal records checks for state troopers are specifically closed under state law. I was stunned when I learned this after I tried to get some records from the state Department of Public Safety earlier this year about troopers with troubled pasts — I mean, who, other than troubled troopers and the people who hired them, would want to prevent the public from finding out whether a state trooper has a record or lied to his superiors?
This past session of the legislature, which wrapped up this summer, had pluses and minuses for transparency. Lawmakers finally passed a first-ever reporter shield law for Texas, but they also voted to close off criminal background checks on public school teachers — and they came frighteningly close to closing off dates of birth for public employees. Reminds me of the Molly Ivins joke someone told me on my first week in Houston: “Why doesn’t the Texas Legislature meet every year? So they won’t do any more damage.”
As for government information available online, there are some bright spots. State Comptroller Susan Combs has a “Where the Money Goes” site, that serves as an online state check register (this just in: The Texas State Commission on Fire Protection spent $370.93 on office supplies last fiscal year).
And the Texas Ethics Commission has campaign contribution information online — pretty important in a state where there are no-state imposed limits on contribution size. Everything’s bigger in Texas, I reckon, especially the campaign checks — though I do wish the state would require that campaigns supply an address each donor. That would make it much easier for the public to find familial and other connections between donors and recipients.
But more could be done. A few years back, legislators wrote laws requiring themselves to file annual ethics forms about their sources of income. But they also required the Ethics Commission to keep a paper record of everyone who asks to see a lawmaker’s ethics form — a subtle, but effective, intimidation tactic. Texas Watchdog countered that by getting the forms for all 181 state legislators and posting them all online on our site.
An effort in the legislature to repeal the identification requirement, and to demand the Ethics Commission post the forms online itself, didn’t get very far earlier this year.
Let’s hope the tide turns in favor of more transparency in 2011.
Check out more of the Texas Watchdog’s great work here.