The Port of Galveston’s governing board is stalling.
The Wharves Board of Trustees interviewed three candidates last week and this week planned to interview two more for the key position of port director.
But the board so far has refused to disclose any information about the candidates for one of the most important public jobs in Galveston, even though state law forbids it from withholding that information.
To stall, the board required The Daily News to file an open records request, which the newspaper did. We’ll hazard a guess the board will sit on the request for 10 working days and claim it has the legal right to do that, which, strictly speaking, is false.
The law is clear that public organizations must hand over public records in a reasonable time. The law gives public organizations 10 working days to seek exemption under one of several statutory sections.
These records, applications for public employment, fall under none of those sections. They clearly are public records.
What’s most disappointing is that most of the wharves board knows this very well, so an open records request shouldn’t have been necessary.
Several wharves board trustees declined to share information about who the finalists are for this prominent position that pays more than $200,000 and heads a major city utility.
Trustee Elizabeth Beeton told The Daily News: “I can’t say because they haven’t all told their employers that they are looking at another job.”
That’s a wispy excuse public entities commonly use to undermine government transparency about hiring decisions. Is the potential awkwardness someone might experience with an existing employer worth undermining open government? Is that nicety worth shutting out public input and shutting off participatory democracy? We don’t think so.
People who demand that level of privacy might better stick to the private sector and not seek public employment.
State law has provisions to shield the identities of candidates for school superintendent and for CEO of an institution of higher learning. The exemptions are examples of special-interest lobbying prevailing over the best interests of the public. They are unfortunate, shouldn’t have been enacted and ought to be repealed.
Which is beside this point, because lawmakers haven’t made the names of applicants for other high-level public jobs — city manager, for example, and port director — confidential.
Increasingly, governments are trying to avoid such disclosures to keep the public in the dark and out of the government’s business, which is, of course, actually the public’s business.
Last month, the Austin American-Statesman sued the city of Austin after officials denied requests under the Texas Public Information Act for the identities of finalists for city manager.
The Statesman filed the suit in a Travis County district court as the Austin City Council began the first of two days of interviewing. The lawsuit seeks disclosure of the city manager candidates’ names.
“The residents of Austin will be paying the salary for a new city manager and, at the very least, should know the finalists being considered by the city for such a critical role,” Austin American-Statesman Executive Editor Debbie Hiott said. “Whether the city council agrees or not, the legislative intent of the Texas Public Information Act has always been clear, that this is the type of information the public is entitled to know …”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re particularly interested in who gets the port director job. What matters is the public’s right to know who might end up leading an entity that almost everyone agrees is a vital economic driver. The public has a right to add its voice to the discussion and have an opportunity to influence the decision.
But at this rate, the public likely won’t know about any of the applicants until there’s one finalist standing.
That would be an unfortunate offense against important public rights. We urge the wharves board to be more transparent about this important decision.
• Laura Elder