“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society, and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings,” President John F. Kennedy told the American Newspaper Publishers Association in April 1961.
And yet, secrets and disinformation in government have become common in America. To this day, the deep state Central Intelligence Agency continues to hide records related to President Kennedy’s assassination. From federal authorities pressuring private companies to ban citizens’ social media accounts, to the medical establishment colluding with government to conduct “gain-of-function” research of dangerous viruses, public servants are warring to keep their bosses—the citizens—uninformed or misinformed.
Transparency issues are evident at the federal level. Less discussed are transparency issues in Texas government.
The Opaque Star State
Texas public servants fighting transparency has been a growing problem.
“The Texas transparency environment is less than what it should be,” James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told Texas Scorecard. “It has very much been marred by things like unfavorable court rulings, some of the COVID dictats, [and] lots of erosion in the form of exceptions that have been built into the [Public Information] law over time.”
It’s also a major problem in public education. A September 2021 conference of the Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Association of School Administrators held a panel advising school district administrators and elected trustees about how to fight open records requests. Texas Scorecard reported this event. This panel was held during nationwide parental uprisings following revelations of anti-citizen political and deviant sexual indoctrination in their public schools. This discovery was made possible thanks to the government-mandated lockdowns and restrictions in 2020 in response to the Chinese coronavirus.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFT) noted more declines of government transparency in Texas in this period. “During the pandemic, many governmental entities stated they were closed for business when it came to Texas Public Information Act requests, even though they continued to operate with a full staff of employees working remotely and many records were available electronically,” FOIFT wrote. “Some governments stated they were operating on a ‘skeleton crew’ and ignored TPIA requests for months on end.”
Why Transparency Matters
In a civilization founded upon self-governance, government secrecy is dangerous. While citizens have a right to privacy, public servants do not because they wield the power to take your home, your money, your freedom, your children, and, in extreme cases, your life.
President Kennedy warned of the dangers of an opaque government in his April 1961 speech.
We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is a very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.
With so much power granted to the hands of a few, transparency for citizens is crucial to check tyranny. “Without transparency, you can’t have accountability,” Quintero said.
One week a year is supposed to help advance this cause. Every March, Sunshine Week, started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (which has since become the News Leaders Association) “aims to promote open government and shine light into the dark recesses of government secrecy,” the Sunshine website states. However, the establishment media tends to help public servants cover themselves up, rather then expose their ill actions. But the idea that transparency is the obligation of government is true, and not enough of it is being provided by Texas’ public servants.
The Opaque Military Department
If there were an award for opaqueness, the Texas Military Department (TMD) would either win it or be a top contender.
From the start of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, as more and more problems arose from the state’s military, commanders chose to hide in the shadows instead of coming clean. As far back as January 2022, former Texas Adjutant General Tracy Norris urged Texas soldiers not to talk to the press. They also appealed an open records request. TMD wasted energy on spin and cover-ups that could have been better spent fixing the number of internal issues that Operation Lone Star exposed.
Throughout Operation Lone Star, TMD was plagued with allegations of sexual assault, suicide, and safety issues. When Texas Scorecard sent open records requests to determine if there was anything to these allegations, again, TMD deployed countermeasures and appealed to Attorney General Paxton. Repeatedly, Paxton forced them to be transparent.
This was covered in our three-part investigative series “Troubled Texas Military,” which examined their fight against transparency, the department’s unaccountable spending, and allegations of law-breaking.
TMD has fought transparency on other fronts as well. In January 2022, we sent an open records request for how many vaccine exemptions had been filed by soldiers assigned to Operation Lone Star. TMD appealed this request to Paxton too. He ordered their release. This was part of Texas Scorecard’s four-part investigative series “Military Vaccine Mandate,” looking into Texas National Guard enlistee Crystal Demaret’s resistance, the targeting of other servicemembers, how the military vaccine mandate is anti-science, and possible Texas solutions.
While Gov. Abbott fired Gen. Norris, TMD’s offensive against transparency has continued. They have appealed multiple open records requests. One, sent August 2022, was to determine if the state’s military had become compromised with Chinese Communist Party-controlled drones. They appealed to Attorney General Ken Paxton, who ordered them to, with certain exceptions, to release their records. On March 2, 2023, TMD told Paxton they “were unable to access the marked records” on a disc, and asked Paxton for a copy. Texas Scorecard is still awaiting these records.
What transparency the Texas Military Department has provided has largely been thanks to Attorney General Paxton.
Concern for national security is often abused as an excuse to shield from accountability and transparency. In certain cases, like military operations in wartime, the need for secrecy for a limited time can be understood, but not for eternity.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Colleyville, whose city council and government underwent a revolution after citizens seized control and installed a new city council and mayor.
As a result of that revolution, the city council, and then-Mayor Richard Newton, with current Mayor and former Mayor Pro-Tem Bobby Lindamood, enacted a wave of reforms. They made the city government more efficient, and regularly adopted the no-new-revenue rate to arrest property tax growth.
Intermingled with the financial problem was a problem of transparency. “We did a lot of work to get the financial position of the city in a shape that we could actually understand it,” Newton told Texas Scorecard. “We got it boiled down to a way that you could easily see in reports what the cash statement of the city is.”
City taxpayers now can easily understand how their money is being spent through an easy-to-use interactive database. Most published government budgets feel like a slow and painful slog through a mucky marsh where you feel you understand less than you did before taking the journey. Not so with Colleyville’s transparent system. With this, taxpayers can see what parts of the city budgets have changed compared to previous years. For example, in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $1.2 million of city taxpayer monies were spent on parks. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, it was more than $860,000. That’s an increased efficiency of 39 percent. You can also see changes in how many employees the city has had in each department over time by clicking on the “Personnel Summary” option on the left.
“That stuff was part of a software package with our accounting system we bought, and then some of it we put together things that we thought were a little bit different,” City Manager Jerry Ducay told Texas Scorecard. If that weren’t enough, Ducay and his team, under the elected public servants’ supervision at city council, worked to provide more transparency through what he called the city’s “all funds cash and investment report,” a link to which can be found halfway down the city’s Financial Transparency website. “[It’s] a very simple table that was put together by our finance department … that provides an identification of all of the funds, and all of the dollars that are in those funds as of that date,” Ducay said. “You notice in each of those funds, all of the available cash that exists and where that cash is invested.”
Basically, the city has made it easy for taxpayers to dive as deep as they want to see how their money is being managed, and can ask questions to their public servants at the city. “It creates less questions, because they feel like they can call you maybe for a detail, and you can really send them over a really great piece of information fairly quickly and answer the question,” Ducay said. “My opinion has always been, if we can’t answer the question, then maybe we need to do our homework a little bit more, and be better prepared next time.”
For former Mayor Newton, transparency is all about building something that increasingly few citizens have in their public servants: trust. “You need to say what you’re going to do, and do it, and be able to show that you did it,” he said. “It takes a long time to develop a track record that provides people a lot of trust in you. But it takes about five seconds to destroy it.”
Much trust was destroyed during the government-lockdowns of 2020, and the accompanying lack of transparency.
Newton is now running to be a school board trustee of Grapevine-Colleyville ISD. Texas Scorecard asked him if he intends to fight for transparency at the school district as well. He said that’s one of his campaign promises. “The very first one is transparency and trust.”
Texas Scorecard asked Ducay if the level of transparency Colleyville offers can be replicated by other cities, and scaled for larger government. “I would think it would get easier the larger you get, because you have more people,” he replied. “Other than the all funds cash report, we’re not really inventing the wheel.”
The Need for Transparency
Transparency and trust are closely linked together. As the former decreases, so does the latter, and in Texas darkness is creeping over the land.
This was not always Texas’ story. Quintero said that 50 years ago, Texas was known for having “the strongest transparency laws in the nation.”
Efforts are underway this session to address this. In January 2023, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas announced the Texas Sunshine Coalition to toughen up the state’s transparency laws. “Access to government information allows us to hold government accountable,” FOIFT’s announcement reads. “All Texans deserve to know how our leaders are conducting business and spending taxpayer dollars.”
This coalition is a bipartisan alliance. It includes the Texas Public Policy Foundation, ACLU of Texas, Grassroots America, Americans for Prosperity, the Texas Association of Broadcasters, and others. They have proposed five actions to increase transparency in Texas.
First is closing loopholes in the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) that allow hiding “super public” records, like descriptions of goods and services and contract pricing.
The Coalition also seeks to have the term “business days” defined in the TPIA and mandate that governments must respond to open records requests. This is in response to such requests being slow walked in Texas during the coronavirus.
Next is mandating in state law that records be searchable and sortable. “Spreadsheets are the most usable format for certain data, yet many governmental entities, instead of producing documents in the spreadsheet form in which they are kept, convert them to PDF images. That makes it difficult to search and sort information.”
They also seek to make birth dates publicly accessible in criminal justice and political candidate filings. Finally, the Coalition wants Texas to axe the “tax” on open records requestors. “A series of appellate court decisions have made it extremely difficult for requestors to recover attorney’s fees under the TPIA,” the Coalition press release states. “This precedent allows governmental bodies to hand over documents at the last minute—even after months of litigation—and avoid paying fees. Governments can ignore requestors, or delay releasing public information, knowing requestors may be unable or unwilling to incur the costs necessary to enforce the TPIA.”
Texas Scorecard recently published a commentary from Kelley Shannon, executive director of Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, highlighting which bills in the Texas Legislature are pushing for more transparency this session.
There is more bacteria in darkness than where there is sunlight, according to research referenced in Science Alert. This backs up that oft-cited quote that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
In government, that’s all transparency is: sunlight which kills off the bacteria of corruption.
“If we ever want to get to a place in Texas, where the public is able to hold their state and local officials accountable in a meaningful way, then we need to make sure that they first have access to the information and data that rightfully belongs to them,” Quintero said.
Public officials are the ones who control the cops, write and enforce laws, and run your kids’ public schools. Therefore militant transparency is an absolute must. Will the Republican-controlled legislature make it happen?