Transparency is in trouble

As it often goes in the great cha-cha slide that is governmental transparency, Texans often find themselves taking two steps back for every small step forward.

Offering officials a little more leeway in dancing around already bare-bones rules meant for clarity can set an awfully dangerous precedent.

Imagine the groan then from every newspaper editor and publisher across Texas Feb. 27 when the state’s highest court struck down a provision of the state’s Open Meeting Act relating to “walking quorums.”

Face, meet palm. Palm, face.

The trouble started when attorneys for Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyle sought to get an indictment filed against him based on “walking quorum” provision dismissed, citing it was unconstitutional. According to a Texas Tribune report, Doyle had been indicted for allegations that he and other commissioners secretly deliberated a proposed road bond without the proper number of officials present.

Prior to last week, public officials were prohibited from deliberately meeting in numbers less than a quorum – the number of officials needed for official business to take place – to discuss something that might be on an agenda.

That all changed when seven of the nine Texas Supreme Court judges sided with Doyle’s attorneys. The majority opinion was the statute lacked specificity and that trying to guess what officials might have been talking about could infringe on free speech.

Except isn’t the point of the rule to prevent even the slimmest possibility of such transgressions from happening in the first place?

Through its ruling, the state’s highest court has, in effect, stepped foot on the slippery slope that is governmental opaqueness.

That’s not to say the majority of public officials are out there trying to do things below board. We’d like to think many of our local leaders try to conduct their official business when and where appropriate. 

But when you give someone an inch, they might just take the whole mile. By golly, does this ruling practically place local officials on the tarmac of Texas Motor Speedway?

Rapidly advancing technology equally plays a role in how disconcerting this ruling could be to transparency. Discussing business outside of the public’s view between one or two officials is already just a few screen taps away. Nixing the prohibition offers them more incentive to do just that, without the possibility of repercussions. 

Perhaps what’s more troubling is how the ruling adds to a deck that’s already stacked against the taxpayers seeing what their government is doing and how their tax money is being spent.

The state’s laws surrounding closed door meetings is a primary starting point. Sure, there are rules in place that require jurisdictions to meet certain statutes when talking about items in executive session.

That hasn’t stopped governments in the past from abusing the rules, trying to expand statutes to include things that should be in the public’s purview.

It should be easier, not harder, for the public to know exactly what is happening in their local government.

Until the shroud is lifted, however, it’s hard to believe officials won’t try take advantage of this remarkably foolish rule change.

Seems it might be time to dust off that old magnifying glass after all.

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