By JOE F. RODRIGUEZ
Special to the Star
Despite Donald Trump’s assertion, the newspaper and the media in general are not the enemy.
Ignorance is the enemy.
As long as taxes are assessed and collected, there will always be a need for information on how that money is spent.
Only with “openness in government” will we the citizens/taxpayers be informed as to how and where tax dollars are being spent. Transparency keeps “elected and unelected” officials accountable for their actions and allows the general public to see for themselves what might influence their decision-making process.
The transparency and accessibility to the media shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The Texas Open Meetings act intent is to help governing bodies from acting in secrecy and to reduce the chances of governing bodies being impacted by abuses of power, cronyism, nepotism and discrimination.
The more people know what is going on in government, the better we are as a free and open society.
The fact of the matter is that most residents work or have other commitments that prevent them from attending in person the governmental public meetings. Ergo, we depend on the media to keep us informed regarding actions by elected and un-elected officials.
Ostensibly, some governmental entities have adopted the protocol that all requests for information, basic questions, and request for comments by reporters be submitted via email to the Public Relations Director. “In person” reporter questions are strictly prohibited. What/why are they hiding?
Withholding information, or even appearing to keep the public at arm’s length, creates a breach of trust between the citizens/taxpayers and our institutions of government.
Journalists, good government watchdogs, and private citizens often butt up against a bureaucracy that makes it tough to track down answers in a reasonable timeframe.
Perpetual stonewalling arguably leads to a bigger chasm of distrust. Of course, resisting secrecy and embracing transparency in the first place is the best way to secure credibility.
People get fed up when befogging or obfuscation throws sand in the gears of open government. Waiting until the 10th business day to respond to a TFOI (Texas Freedom of Information) request for documents is a classic example of perpetual stonewalling.
However, the standard under the Act is actually that the governmental body must “promptly produce” the public information when “readily available.”
Furthermore, the Act states that all public information requests must be accomplished within a “reasonable time period.
Despite some elected officials assertion that that “intent” should be a consideration before responding to a Texas Public Information request, a governmental body cannot ask the requestor the purpose for which the information will be used. A culture of “delay and deny” is bad government.
Bottom line, the Texas Public Information Act was designed and adopted for citizens to make “requests for information (documents)” and not for citizens or reporters to submit their questions to elected officials or tax funded employees via email. In fact, the Act is only activated by a “written request for the documents” and not for general questions.
Elected and un-elected officials should take a collaborative rather than a confrontational approach.
Newspapers are the first to admit they are not perfect, but they are serious about what they see as their core role: serving as watchdogs to protect the public interest.
Elected officials may not like a story or two when it’s published, but they know newspaper publishers/editors/reporters have a responsibility to their readers to report facts.
And facts do not always support a particular point of view. In fact, newspapers do offer corrections or retractions on parts or all of an article when the true facts are presented to them. The uses of the terms “I was misquoted or misrepresented” are not valid excuses for denying a newspaper article. Setting the record straight is more important than just denying it.
A prime example of taking transparency to the next level is to post “along with meeting agendas” the “Public Attachments” online on their web site for public viewing before the scheduled board meeting. The board’s agenda packet contains a trove of information that the public is entitled to access and view. Being privy to the details allows the public to ask more relevant questions.
Currently, several governmental entities in the RGV use a document publisher (Bookboard) to post the complete board (public) attachments online for public access before the scheduled meetings. If these governmental entities can do it, so can all the rest.
Our only political agenda, as voters/taxpayers, is to interpret all the information presented to us and make wise and informed decisions about our future together as a city on election-day. A smarter and more informed citizen makes for a better community.
Jose F. Rodriguez is a resident of San Benito.