This morning’s remarks by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton at the 2015 Open Government Conference hosted by the Texas Attorney General’s Office:
Thank you, Justin Gordon, for that introduction. I’d also like to thank you and everyone else in the Open Records Division for the hard work you do every day.
Everyone should understand that the Open Records Division doesn’t just handle hundreds of public information requests annually, not just thousands, but tens of thousands. That’s a lot of work, important work, for the people of Texas.
President James Madison once said, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it … is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”
And, of course, it was the great American humorist Kin Hubbard who once said, “If there’s anything a public servant hates to do, it’s something for the public.”
They’re two facts that need to be reconciled: the necessity of open government versus the periodic reluctance of officials to share. That’s why the open government laws are in place.
At their core, these laws simply say that the public has the right to know the facts about how they’re governed and how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent. In essence, it’s a way to protect the freedoms that our Founding Fathers fought so hard to secure. They had seen, first-hand, what happens when a ruler has too much power over the people.
So they formed a Republic where the people had authority over those who represented them. Holding our government accountable is a massive part of that.
Now, to double back a bit, sometimes our leaders are reluctant to publically share information for entirely valid reasons. Sometimes you have to withhold information or have an executive session to protect a compelling public interest, or the privacy of an employee, or a member of the public.
Balancing the public’s need to know with the government’s ability to function properly is where open government laws get complicated.
It’s why Justin and his team have tens of thousands of requests to sort through. It’s complex, sometimes arcane, and it’s getting more difficult all the time.
Do you think George Washington ever had to figure out how social media might affect open records laws? Sure, he had other things to deal with, but the role of technology is changing everything and change is happening faster all the time.
Technology has changed the way we approach our lives and the public has more access to more information about the way their government conducts business than ever before. That’s part of what the Legislature has to address every biennium when they consider updating or changing transparency laws.
Through it all, we must strive to remain true to the overriding principle that the public has a right to know and a right to remain informed. This conference highlights the most recent revisions to Texas open-government laws, which are already among the most transparent in the nation.
Why is this so important?
Again, transparency promotes accountability. It keeps governments aware of the importance of protecting taxpayer money and their responsibility to stand behind and explain the decisions they make. It would be a mistake to suggest the roles are always adversarial.
There have been times when examination of records by the public has resulted in the discovery of an oversight or an idea on how to do something better. In that way, open government elevates the public to their proper role as partners in leadership.
Technology has accelerated and enhanced that relationship. It’s both promising, and challenging, for the future.
I urge all of you to take this opportunity to learn as much as you can about the state of open government law. Make connections and keep the dialogue going, even after the conference is over. It’s through these sorts of discussions, debates, and trial and error that we come up with the best ways to keep our government both accountable and efficient.
We know that the future is only going to get more complex but we must always keep an eye on the bedrock principles of openness and freedom that have made this state, and this country, the greatest place to live, work and raise a family.
Thank you, God bless you, and may God continue to bless the Great State of Texas.