It’s all too fitting that Sunshine Week, a national effort to raise awareness on the importance of government transparency, falls at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and government involvement in our daily lives.
Under the best of circumstances, this week reminds us all that governance done in the name of the people is accountable to the people, and the people are entitled to the open access of information as to how their leaders govern and how their tax dollars are spent.
In March of 2020, we find ourselves with extraordinary restrictions to the world around us. We’re largely unable to work, send our children to school and even to see our loved ones. While Texans find themselves limited in what we can do, government at all levels has taken large-scale action in the name of public health in response to an ongoing crisis.
The fluidity of the situation has governments reacting to information that changes hourly, and the actions taken will no doubt be subject to future scrutiny and debate.
Patrick Henry said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” In this spirit, Texas passed the Open Meetings Act to provide full public access to deliberations and decision-making processes of their government at every level. The access to this information is indispensable for the people to hold their leaders accountable and to ensure the best decisions are being made for the public interest. In its most simple terms, transparency enables good government and roots out corruption.
Today, we find ourselves in a situation in which federal and state guidelines prevent the face-to-face contact with our officials and impedes the ability of the public to freely view the actions of the government. Monday, in an effort to limit person-to-person interaction and impede the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott granted a request by the attorney general for suspension of certain open meeting statutes.
This step is accompanied by an order that citizens shall have access to view and participate in the public meetings of any governmental bodies through telephonic or videoconference technology, and that all public meetings shall be recorded and provided to the public.
“Even as the State of Texas takes precautionary measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, we also have a responsibility to maintain government transparency,” Abbott said. “With today’s action, Texas is reducing non-essential in-person contact for a limited period, while ensuring that state and local government entities continue to work to fulfill necessary functions and with full transparency for the people of Texas.”
This temporary provision is absolutely crucial to ensure Texans have access to their government, and I applaud Gov. Abbott on his foresight and leadership.
This pandemic presents challenges previously uncontemplated. The United States will be forever changed, and this challenge will shape the American character moving forward. Sunshine Week reminds us of the vital necessity for the people to demand their government act in full view of the public and should strengthen our commitment to ensure we pass these principles to future generations.