Last week was Sunshine Week at newspapers across the country, a time to push for brighter and better, especially clearer sunshine laws, that is, laws that allow the public access to government goings-on.
I was, understandably, a little distracted. We all were/are with what’s happening right now. In an attempt to lighten things up a little, I decided to write about the history of toilet paper and offered alternative suggestions for those who may have run out. Needs must, and all that.
This is not that kind of column.
To make up for losing my head a bit, and I noticed that my colleagues all managed to get in their Sunshine Week columns last week, this week I’m going to shine a little light on the ongoing fight between The Odessa American and its city government.
On Aug. 31, 2019, a gunman went on a shooting spree in Odessa, killing eight people including himself and wounding 25 more, three of them police officers.
Before the shooting, the Odessa Police Department had a fairly open policy with the local press. Requests for information on police reports, jail reports, affidavits, etc., were asked for and given in a fairly timely and open manner. After the shooting, and the laserlike national media attention that focused on the West Texas oil town, the police began to demand Freedom of Information requests for all probable cause affidavits and police reports, according to the lawsuit the paper and CBS-7 filed against the city.
I’ve had plenty of people tell me that I need to file a FOIA request, and that’s fine, but the hitch in Odessa’s britches is that as the newspaper states in a Feb. 25 article, “information that is always considered public does not require a FOI request — certainly not information that is covered under the Texas Public Information Act.”
The city’s altered policy resulted in reports being sent to the news organizations with large, redacted portions. I understand the city’s position up to a certain point. All of a sudden coming under intense scrutiny can cause people to put their backs up, but as my grandmother told me, “honesty is the best policy.”
So some random John Smith burgles a building and is popped by the cops. Having access to his arrest records only makes the city look bad if they did something wrong. And, if they’re doing something wrong, then that is something that needs to be corrected, not covered up.
Which is why after the governor invoked a disaster declaration and suspended the public access portion of the open meetings law kind of gets my back up. I understand why it’s necessary to social distance, but I don’t like this one part. I realize that most people will find some way to keep public meetings open to the public, but it still leaves an opportunity for those who don’t have the public’s best interest at heart.
Just about everyone has a smartphone and a social media account, they could just livestream a public meeting and leave it open to comments. Plenty of people are home right now, twiddling their thumbs, why not give them a civics lesson in local government?