Thursday, April 26, 2007

Open Government, Again

We have covered it here and here before, but open government is in the news again. Terry Bader resigned from the school board over the editing of the board meeting recording shown on channel 4. This is disturbing on a number of levels.

Texas has some fairly strong open government laws. They have specific requirements about how meetings must be conducted, what records must and can be kept. There are laws and rules about what must be disclosed to the public and how. They are an attempt to implement a government that is open to public inspection, and where the information is accurate and complete. This is called accountability.

The school district has been recording some sessions of the school board meetings for a number of years. They are then broadcast on channel 4 so that people that didn't make the meeting can see what happened. The implication is that this is a complete and accurate record of what happened at the meeting. The only expected gaps would be those for breaks or executive sessions. Everything else should be a complete and accurate, unedited record.

The government code in section 551.021 states in part that "The minutes and tape recordings of an open meeting are public records". There is an expectation that as public records, they will be accurate, complete, and available. They can't be arbitrarily edited just to avoid an embarrassing dialog. The public has a right to a complete record of what goes on in making policy for them and spending their money, not some sanitized feel good version that some administrator would like it to be. It is especially disturbing when the editing was done to keep information that might be embarrassing on a complicated and controversial bond issue obscured from the public view.

I have heard some comments saying that they should have at least labeled the tape as an edited version. I agree that it should have been labeled as an edited version, but it should not have even been aired. The broadcast on cable is there to give information about the workings of our elected school board officials and our hired administrators. It is a necessary closeup of the decision making process that we expect them to be accountable for. This broadcast shouldn't be a year book picture where you get to look your best. This should be a candid picture with no makeup and all the pimples and blemishes should be clearly visible. Open meetings are there so that citizens actually know how and why decisions are made, especially the tough ones. Any attempt to edit out the blemishes and put forward a false unified happy face is deceptive and violates at least the spirit if not the letter of all the laws relating to open government.

I have been told that the school board and staff have already had their mandatory open government training this year. I hope that next years training will have a better, more lasting affect.

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