Sunshine week will commend openness

Published on Sunday, 13 March 2016 11:56 - Written by

Does it seem a little brighter to you? No, we’re not talking about Daylight Saving Time. It’s time again to observe Sunshine Week, a celebration of light and openness in government.

Sunshine Week emphasizes the public’s right to know, and government’s duty to do its business in the open and to keep citizens informed. During the past few decades, citizens and the media have made gains in keeping government open and information available.

In Texas, the shield law protecting journalists and their sources, which was enacted in 2009, continues to work well. Shield laws are vital to government openness. Reporters must be able to promise whistleblowers and other sources that their identities can be protected. Otherwise, few would come forward. The Texas law is well-written and has proven itself in a number of court tests.

There have been other victories for transparency lately; one is the more widespread use of body cameras by law enforcement agencies.

After the controversy that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, police departments around the country began equipping their officers with body cameras to record encounters with the public.

Tyler police have long had dashboard cameras, and for some months even before Ferguson, the department had been experimenting with body cameras for bicycle officers. Police Chief Gary Swindle went to the Tyler City Council with a presentation, and the council agreed to purchase 135 cameras for all patrol officers to wear.

Cameras help keep people honest, Swindle explained last year.

“When we put (dashboard) cameras in cars, we saw complaints go down 80 percent,” he said. “We know that officers behave better when they’re being filmed, and we think citizens will behave better, too.”

But there have been setbacks in government openness this year.

The Smith County Commissioners Court is currently under investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s Office for a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act. The meeting in question was an executive session in which proposed unmanned speed zone cameras were discussed.

There’s also an FBI investigation into the matter.

The whole issue of those unmanned cameras was handled poorly by commissioners, beginning with poor wording on court agendas that didn’t indicate the nature of what was being discussed, meetings held in executive session when they didn’t have to be, and poor communication between the court, the public and other law enforcement agencies.

The county scuttled the program, but that didn’t end the problems. Commissioners have hired outside attorneys and spent tens of thousands of dollars so far, for legal work pertaining to the contract with American Traffic Solutions and the AG investigation.

Commissioners now acknowledge the whole matter has resulted in a lack of trust between the public and the court - at a time when the county needs to address its roads.

If the court went to the public with a bond package right now, commissioners admit, it would fail.

Commissioners can and must rebuild that trust. A training session on Open Meetings that they’ve planned for later in March is a good start.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”