Public matters shouldn’t be kept private

Freedom New Mexico

Some Texas politicians are working to destroy that state’s open government laws.

Four Texas cities — none in the Panhandle, thankfully — and more than a dozen individual officeholders have filed suit against the state, seeking to kill part of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The lawsuit follows the dismissal of a similar suit filed by two former Alpine, Texas, city council members last year. The two former officials had been charged with violating the Open Meetings Act when they discussed public affairs in private conversations and through e-mails.

The indictments were dropped, but officials filed suit, claiming the law violates their First Amendment right of free speech. A federal appeals court ruled in September that because the plaintiffs had left office and the law no longer applied to them, they didn’t have the legal standing to challenge it.

According to their lawsuit, the Open Meetings Act violated their First Amendment right of free speech. Of course, it does no such thing. People are free to say whatever they want.

Public officials, however, are expected to discuss public issues within access of the public, whose fate they are deciding.

The officials must tell the public that those deliberations are going to take place, so that interested people can be there to defend their interests.

The reasoning is simple: The people have a right to know what their elected officials are deciding and how their tax money is being spent. Allowing such discussions would enable officials to make backroom deals, without public knowledge, and use their official meetings to simply vote on issues with no public discussion, since those discussions had already been conducted without the people’s knowledge, or input.

Plaintiffs pursuing this new challenge apparently are trying to be clever. They aren’t asking that the Open Meetings Act be overturned, they just want the sanctions — up to six months in and up to $500 in fines — be erased. Officials would still be violating the law, but they could do so with impunity.

We agree with Brownsville, Texas, City Manager Charlie Cabler, a former police commander, with respect to those who are chafing at the penalties and working so hard to eliminate them:

“You shouldn’t worry about penalties if you are following the law,” Cabler said.

Our nation operates on a basic principle: government with the consent of the governed. People can’t give — or deny — that consent if they aren’t informed.