The Port Arthur News
The Texas Public Information Act says “government is the servant and not the master of the people.” It says “each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.”
The Public Information Act of Texas should be required reading for the Port Arthur City Council, Human Resources Department and Legal Department.
The city is nearing the end of a search for a new city manager to replace Steve Fitzgibbons, whose last day was Jan. 15. It is the right of the citizens of Port Arthur to know how their representatives on Council are carrying out their duties in making perhaps the most important hire they will make in their terms. Part of that right to know is the right to know who applied to be city manager of Port Arthur.
The Port Arthur News, in an effort to fulfill its obligation to keep the people of this area informed about what the people they elect to office are doing, made an official request for the identity of the final candidates for city manager and for the names of everyone who applied for the position.
The Public Information Act says, “An officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication, or both on application by any person to the officer. In this subsection, ‘promptly’ means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.” The News did not get the names of the applicants Thursday. We did not get the names Friday. We have not been informed when we will get the names or exactly why the city believes it is not required to provide the public information as outlined by the Public Information Act.
Some of the council members involved in the process of selecting the city manager have said they are doing a “blind” process and they have not been provided the names of the individuals by the search firm the city hired to facilitate the city manager search. That same approach to keep public information secret was tried by the city of West University Place more than two decades ago and it was shot down by Attorney General Dan Morales in “Open Records Decision No. 585.” In his opinion, Morales explains his reasoning and tells the City Attorney for West University Place, “Therefore, the names of the applicants for the position of city manager must be made available to the requester.”
The people of Port Arthur are entitled, by law, to know whether any current city staff members have applied for the position. They are entitled to know how many people from across the state and outside the state applied. With advances in search engines and social media, the people are entitled to be involved in their governmental processes by doing their own research on candidates and making their views known. The city council is not entitled to keep the business of the people secret except in very explicitly defined instances. And the names of applicants for a position with the city are not one of those defined instances.
The Public Information Act has a requirement that “Each public official shall complete a course of training of not less than one and not more than two hours regarding the responsibilities of the governmental body with which the official serves...” The Act also requires that the public officials understand the “penalties and other consequences for failure to comply with this chapter.”
Texas is a leader among states with a history of “government in the sunshine.” Port Arthurans may delegate authority to the city council, but the people of this city do not delegate the right for the City Council to decide what is good for the people of Port Arthur to know and what is not good for the people of Port Arthur to know, to paraphrase the Public Information Act. We urge the city of Port Arthur to clear the fog of secrecy and allow the people who pay the taxes that fund the city know what is going on in their city government. Do as the law requires and release the identity of the applicants for the position of city manager, and do it “promptly.”