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Gary Borders: Journalists keep fighting for transparency in governments worldwide

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Sunshine Week ends tomorrow. Newspapers, media organizations and good-government groups have published columns, editorials and other material to raise awareness of how we must be vigilant to protect the public’s right to know.

That right is constantly under attack, in Texas and on the federal level. Hillary Clinton’s use of private email while secretary of state has caused a stink, as it should have. Fortunately, the negative publicity compelled the impending release of those emails, which should never have been on a private server. But that is a common practice. Former Gov. Rick Perry, a presumptive presidential candidate, lambasted Clinton for her “non-transparency,” as he put it. Perry ought to look in the mirror, since he used a personal email account to communicate with members of the University of Texas board of regents.

My first run-in with public officials trying to operate in secrets came when, at age 26, I was running a small weekly in San Augustine and covering a city council meeting. The city manager abruptly took the council into executive session, even though there was no agenda item allowing that action, and nothing on the agenda that qualified to be discussed in secret. I stood up and asked the city attorney how the council could legally go into secret session. He blew me off with a non-answer.

The next week, I wrote a lengthy editorial that started with the chorus from a Charlie Rich song: “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors.” And I chastised the attorney for not following the law, since he should know better. I had the righteous indignation of a young whippersnapper and fulminated for about 500 words — long for an editorial. The city attorney and I became good friends after that, and the council obeyed the open meetings law at least during my tenure there.

For about five legislative sessions I served on an advisory committee for the Texas newspaper industry. Every two weeks we would meet to discuss bills that affect newspapers or the public’s right to know. The efforts to chip away at freedom of information laws are unending. Too many of these bills are successful, such as making it more difficult to get the details of auto accidents, or the addresses of public officials. The school board lobby managed to make it all but impossible to know who has applied to be a superintendent until a finalist is named. So did colleges and universities.

I am still involved as a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, but my job duties this session have kept me largely on the sidelines.

My experience with the public officials in Titus County in nine months here has been very positive. We are given whatever we ask for, promptly and willingly. That has not always been the case in places I worked. Just four years ago I was forced to file a complaint with the attorney general because the Leander police chief, outside Austin, would not release the routine incident reports — even though they are clearly public record.

Why does that matter? It means that in Leander, if the fellow down the street was arrested for child molestation, his neighbors would never know except possibly by hearsay. Or if there have been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood, how else would residents find out about it if police reports are kept secret?

An assistant attorney general used “telephone justice,” yelling at the chief that he had to obey the law, just like everybody else. That did the trick, luckily, and we started getting the reports.

Not much grows well in the dark. Government operates best in the sunlight. After nearly 40 years in this business, I believe that more than ever.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.