EDITORIAL: Officials, and public, should know open government laws

You might want to keep this website handy: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open-government/governmental-bodies/pia-and-oma-training-resources. This site managed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office offers links to information about state open government laws, and to the laws themselves.

Specifically, trustees and administrators with the San Benito School District are invited to visit the site, if they haven’t already. And they should have.

These officials and others who regularly are involved in public meetings or handle public information should have earned state certification that they know and understand those laws. Acquiring that certification within six months of taking their positions is one of those laws.

At least one San Benito official apparently doesn’t have such knowledge.

Earlier this month a district official issued an email addressing information in a newspaper article about the firing of after-school director Jack Garcia after he reportedly improperly used a district credit card to buy airline tickets for district chess players to attend the state championship tournament. School board member Mary Lou Garza, Garcia’s aunt, was quoted in the article, and apparently prompted the email that was sent to district officials and to some local news media.

The email suggested information used in the article was “leaked,” and stated that anyone who divulged information that had been acquired in a closed-door meeting could face criminal charges.

“At this time, the San Benito CISD board of trustees is prepared to use any of the legal tools available to enforce these confidentiality policies and ensure that information that is discussed in accordance to the provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act remains confidential,” the email states.

Those statements aren’t true.

Texas open government laws, which are among the best in the country, follow the basic premise that the public has a right to know what government officials are doing and how public funds are being used. Exclusions to public disclosure are relatively few and specific; if the law doesn’t specifically exempt information from public disclosure, it is presumed to be public.

It’s worth noting that there is no such thing as a “closed meetings act.”

What’s more, the disclosure of exempted information, whether intentional or accidental, generally isn’t a crime. It might violate a government entity’s policies or, in the case of land dealings or trade secrets, the terms of a contract, but that would be a civil matter.

Observers have suggested that the missive simply was an effort to intimidate district officials into silence. But since those to whom it was directed should have taken the open meetings certification course and should know the laws, the threat should have had little effect.

However, the obvious attempt to elude public disclosure about district actions should concern those whose children attend San Benito schools, whose taxes support the district and whose votes elect the governing board. Fortunately, open government laws and the certification courses about them are also public, and interested parties can arm themselves with the facts in order to recognize any misstatements about what the public can and cannot know.