A proposed law that would prevent Texas governments from approving contracts whose payments are secret will be filed in 2017 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who said he is a strong champion of the people’s right to know.
The House District 40 state lawmaker, whose district includes a portion of McAllen, announced his intention following growing concern about a stand taken by McAllen city government that it is prevented in disclosing the fee it paid to Enrique Iglesias, one of the best-selling Latin recording artists in the world.
Iglesias was the star attraction for a December 5, 2015 concert, held at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium as part of McAllen Holiday Parade organized by the City of McAllen.
Canales said Texas governments – from school districts to state universities and agencies – should not be allowed to keep secret any expenditures paid for with tax funds.
“Let me make this clear: McAllen city government has been a leader in Texas in being transparent in what it does, such as being among the first to provide live broadcasts of its city commission meetings and providing on their Internet the entire city commission agenda packets,” said the Edinburg attorney. “My legislation would prevent in the future the signing of any contracts by state or local governments where the payments are not readily available to the public.”
Canales said he has a proven track record in pushing for legislation that makes government more open and transparent.
At the beginning of this year, a new state law, coauthored by Canales, went into effect that requires the key public meetings of elected governmental bodies in the larger school districts, cities and counties in Texas, including many in the Valley, to be videotaped in their entirety and made available on the Internet.
“This new law, created by House Bill 283, will improve transparency and access to our government leaders by ensuring that recordings of open meetings are now easily available to the people,” said Canales. “Many people do not have the available time to attend city council/commission, school board, and county commissioners court meetings because they are working, spending time with their families, or lack access to transportation.”
The Legislature approved HB 283 during its most recent regular session, which took place from Tuesday, January 13, 2015 through Monday, June 1, 2015. It was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday, June 17, 2015.
Canales does not shy away from the toughest battles in his dedication to open government.
In 2015 he filed House Bill 1587 , which would have required the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide details about the names of the drugs used in the lethal injections, along with the identity of their manufacturers, the expiration dates of the deadly concoction, the results of laboratory tests performed on those ingredients, and pertinent information relating to the toxic substance.
The public’s right to know about how executions take place in Texas – including current, controversial secret information regarding the lethal drugs used to administer the death sentence – would be dramatically strengthened under the measure Canales filed on Friday, February 20, 2015.
“In Texas, we do not give the bureaucrats the absolute authority to decide what the public can and cannot know about what their government is doing,” said Canales. “When it comes to the death penalty, Texans will not allow state government to keep secrets about this drug, which wields the power of life and death.”
His support of disclosing such details in the name of open government drew strong support from Kelley Shannon, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“The people of Texas need information to scrutinize their government and hold it accountable,” said Shannon, who helps lead the non-profit 301(c)(3) organization, which is devoted to promoting open government, freedom of speech, and freedom of press. “With the death penalty, we are talking about the ultimate punishment for a crime. The people have the right to know how their state is carrying out punishment by lethal injection.”
Canales plans to reintroduce another open government measure when state lawmaker return to work for the five-month 85th regular session, which begins in mid-January 2017.
In 2015, Canales filed House Joint Resolution 62, which would have allowed Texans, in a statewide vote, to require the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to record and post on the Internet video of their proceedings.
Canales’ HJR 62 did not make it out of a House committee, which happens to most pieces of legislation. But the state representative expressed confidence that there is bipartisan support to get that plan approved by lawmakers and the governor in 2017.
“The Supreme Court of Texas already provides video recordings of its proceedings that are made available on it’s website, and it makes sense that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will soon have to do the same,” Canales said. “Besides, at least 30 other states in the U.S. require video broadcasts of the key actions of their highest state courts.”
According to http://www.txcourts.gov/supreme:
Composed of the Chief Justice and eight Justices, the Supreme Court of Texas is the court of last resort for civil matters in the State of Texas. The Supreme Court is in Austin, next to the State Capitol.
The Justices of the Supreme Court are elected to staggered six-year terms in state-wide elections. When a vacancy arises the Governor may appoint a Justice, subject to Senate confirmation, to serve out the remainder of an unexpired term until the next general election. All members of the Court must be at least 35 years of age, a citizen of Texas, licensed to practice law in Texas, and must have practiced law (or have been a lawyer and a judge of a court of record together) for at least ten years (see Texas Constitution, Art. 5, Sec. 2).
By statute the Court has administrative control over the State Bar of Texas. Tex. Gov’t Code § 81.011. The Court is also the sole authority for licensing attorneys in Texas and appoints the members of the Board of Law Examiners which administers the Texas bar examination. Tex. Gov’t Code §§ 82.00, 82.004.
The Court promulgates the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure, the Texas Rules of Evidence and other rules and standards.
The Court of Criminal Appeals is Texas’ highest court for criminal cases. The Court consists of a Presiding Judge and eight Judges. They are elected by the voters of the entire state, and they hold their offices for terms of six years.
The Court sits in Austin – near the Capitol. From time to time it may sit in other cities to hear cases.
TEXAS SUNSHINE WEEK, MARCH 13 THROUGH MARCH 19 – KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Kelley Shannon, the executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit organization promoting open government laws, has released a summary of key legislation in Texas that affects the people’s right to know about the activities and expenditures of state and local governments .
Shannon’s viewpoints follow:
Shining light on our government allows democracy to flourish. As we celebrate that light during national Sunshine Week from March 13 to 19, let’s be thankful that Texas laws value the public’s right to know through broad access to records and meetings.
But we cannot grow complacent. We must fight to keep the laws strong.
Every year, there are attempts to chip away at our Texas transparency in the courts, at the Legislature and in government offices.
Questions from citizens frequently arise about potential violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Has a school board held an illegal vote behind closed doors? Doesn’t a city council have to post specifics of its meeting agenda in advance?
When it comes to the Texas Public Information Act, governing access to government records, citizens sometimes find themselves waiting far too long after making a records request or wrongly told that no such documents exist. Or, the requester is given an outlandish estimate of hundreds or thousands of dollars for the cost of obtaining the records. That cost becomes a barrier to information.
To address these and other public access issues, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is hosting a series of Open Government Seminars around the state in cooperation with the Attorney General’s Office to provide training in open records and open meetings laws.
The first two scheduled seminars this year are in the Houston area on May 3 and in El Paso on May 10. More cities will be added soon. Go to http://www.foift.org for details.
These seminars explain the state open government laws and how they are affected by the actions of the 2015 Legislature and recent court rulings.
Some Texas court rulings this past year have been especially troublesome for information access. They have made it easier for nonprofit agencies to shield their financial records even if they perform government duties. They have closed off more birthdates from view in public records. They have given private corporations more ability to keep their government contracts secret.
On the bright side, Texas lawmakers last year rejected some of the most egregious anti-transparency proposals and passed several measures promoting openness.
Newly enacted laws required many local governments to post videotaped recordings of their public meetings online; established a searchable database listing the “interested parties” in major state and local government contracts; required police departments to file prompt reports with the state in officer-involved shootings; and restored the freedom of journalists to report on allegations of wrongdoing in matters of public interest.
Information is necessary to participate in our government and hold it accountable. Our nation’s founders treasured the free flow of information as essential to protecting all of our liberties. And, as the Texas Public Information Act explains, in our state we have an inherent right to know:
“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”