The Final Tally
The most important positive was SB 1851, the omnibus open records bill by Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. Among other things, it proposes to open up more government information via the Internet, forbids public officials from withholding public information unless the info is "expressly made confidential under other law," and prohibits governmental bodies from repeatedly asking for attorney general decisions to withhold information.
Other major victories for the TDNA included HB 156, which will close the "staff briefings" loophole in the Texas Open Meetings Act. Too often, governmental bodies were using so-called "staff briefings" to discuss government business in private; the new law, by Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, changes the definition of "meeting" to include a gathering at which a quorum receives information, gives information, asks questions of, or receives questions from anyone regarding public business.
Also, SB 418 by Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, will enhance public access to political candidates' contributions and expenditures reports both by mandating that the reports be made available for public inspection and by allowing anyone inspecting the reports to remain anonymous.
Among the TDNA's major defeats were:
• HB 801 by Tom Uher, D-Bay City, which the TDNA says will limit the public's ability to request a hearing before the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission;
• HB 1379 by Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, which will exclude certain information about prison inmates from the Public Information Act;
• SB 669 by Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant, which will close off from the public parts of the bidding processes for school construction;
• SB 840 by Royce West, D-Dallas, which will create ways for a trial court to expunge arrest information from a criminal trial.
Also, Governor Bush vetoed TNDA-supported HB 2557 by Bob Glaze, D-Gilmer. The bill would have required businesses and organizations with state contracts or using state grant money to comply with the Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Bush said he vetoed the bill because it would "require the volunteer boards of nonprofit and faith-based groups to post public notice for their private meetings," and that accountability could be "better accomplished through rulemaking by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs."
In the world of journalism, there are few ignominies greater than getting a "Dart" from the Columbia Journalism Review. The Austin American-Statesman received one in the July/August issue.
Darts, in CJR lingo, are badges of shame that the esteemed magazine of the Columbia University School of Journalism visits upon media outlets who exercise poor journalistic judgment. The magazine awards several Darts every issue, along with "Laurels" to journalists who excel at their jobs.
This dart was given to Mary Scott Nabers, a columnist for the Statesman's business section, who writes about public-private partnerships. Nabers is also employed, as the Statesman identifies her, as "president and chief executive of Strategic Partnerships Inc., an Austin-based company specializing in public sector procurement." But according to CJR, that ID doesn't tell the whole story.
"In her February 10 offering, for example (and again on March 3, April 7, and May 19), Nabers touted an electronic credit card for food stamps known as the Lone Star Card, without revealing that the 'private sector partner' that got the Lone Star Card contract plum was a subsidiary of GTECH Corporation, a top Nabers client," says CJR. "The April 7 column gave a similar plug to Northrop Grumman, another Nabers client."
The Statesman's business editor, Becky Bisbee, responded to the Dart by telling the Chronicle that "It's a serious accusation, so we're treating it very seriously. It's not how you like to appear in CJR." Bisbee said the Statesman had "talked to" Nabers about it.
Nabers, however, sounded less contrite when asked about the Dart. "I probably wouldn't do it different next time," she said.
"We were talking about partnerships. We certainly didn't plug the company. ... I had to mention something to point out the savings that this partnership brought to the state. We would never try to plug our clients in a news article, but it's hard to write about partnerships and not mention something like the Lone Star Card. The info I quoted came straight out of a press release the state put out."
The Statesman also received a Dart last year in the March/April issue, regarding the publication of a letter that many readers regarded as anti-Semitic.
While we're picking on the Statesman, let's also throw a laurel of our own their way. Last month, the daily began an occasional series titled "Issues 2000," which deals with the major issues facing the presidential candidates, and how those candidates have responded or intend to respond, with a special focus on George W. Bush. The first installment was authored by Scott S. Greenberger and dealt with the threat of urban sprawl. Thus far, it is some of the most substantive reporting of Bush's positions (or lack thereof) that we've seen in the Statesman. It's also the type of reporting that the public needs more of on elections -- stories that actually look at the issues, rather than simply focusing on the horserace aspects of the election. News media, the Statesman included, need to spend more time looking at candidates' records and less at poll results. After all, there's ultimately only one poll that matters, and it won't be conducted until Election Day, 2000.