Power to the People

Mother Russia kept saying, untitled
knowledge is power, they say, sir.

Although John Le Carre in “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy” may have borrowed the knowledge-power axiom from Sir Francis Bacon, the validity of the old chestnut can still be viewed today, even in Marion County.

Upon taking office, elected officials, in addition to their constitutional and statutory accouterments, become enshrined with insider knowledge. Since the recently elected official was often the previous person’s deputy or a close friend, access to information – and power – remains contained to the same group.

The information can often seem purely minutia. Who filed for a divorce? Who sought a building permit? Who was arrested for DWI? Who reported a burglary?

Part of the popularity of Facebook, I think, is the quest for this knowledge. We all enjoy vacation photos from friends and family, but harvesting official tidbits makes life more flavorful.It’s no secret office holders are reluctant to share their secrets.

If everyone knew, then who would have the power? In 1973, the Texas Legislature, in the wake of the Sharpstown Scandal, made it clear information and power is to be shared with other Texans. Originally known as the Texas Open Records Act, access to public records is spelled out in Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code.

The act states that “government is the servant and not the master of the people.”Now known as the Texas Public Information Act, the law further states, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

You may have noticed the Jimplecute has filed several Texas Public Information Act requests of Marion County and Jefferson officials. Some relate to the famous “Elmer” Facebook post on the Marion County Sheriff ’s Department Facebook page.

Other requests pertain to Sheriff Office and Police Department records you are entitled to see, but Sheriff David McKnight now requires an official request before he will provide what the law clearly says he must do.

We also now demand blotter and investigation report information as a routine matter. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas points out the Texas Public Information Act applies to all governmental bodies, including all boards, commissions and committees created by the executive or legislative branch.

It also may apply to a body that is supported by public funds or that spends public funds. Private organizations that hold records for governmental bodies also are covered. However, private individuals and businesses are not covered even though they supply goods or services through a government contract.

Public information refers to information collected, assembled, produced or maintained in the course of transacting public business, the Foundation explains. It may be on paper or film or in electronic communications such as emails, Internet postings, text messages or instant messages.

Clearly, Sheriff McKnight’s text messages are public record.There are exceptions, however.Some information is not open to the public. Exceptions in the Texas Public Information Act include some information in personnel records, pending litigation, competitive bids, trade secrets, real estate deals and certain legal matters involving attorney-client privilege.

Records that would hinder the investigation or prosecution of a crime if they are released are also exempt from disclosure. The right to look at these records is not a privilege granted exclusively to members of the media, in this case the Jimplecute.

Every single Texan has this prerogative. In the case of federal records, every U.S. resident has access to a wide range of records thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. Most citizens, however, have neither time nor resources to pursue a TFOI inquiry, so the job often falls to the local newspaper.

“Vox populi” is a term applied at times to the media. It means, “voice of the people.” In this case, however, we strive to be your eyes and ears. The goal is to provide you with the information, so you will have the power.

Mother Russia, the fictional British intelligence analyst, would nod approval.

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