By Peggy Venable
An important commentary appeared in today’s Austin America-Statesman and it deserves a close look. It pertains to an issue which has implications far-reaching and could impact just how open our government is – or is not.
“Suppose the State Legislature told the Austin American Statesman that it may not use the Open Meetings Act or the Freedom of Information Act to ask too many questions of the University of Texas. The newspaper would go rightly ballistic. Yet that is precisely what the Legislature is punishing Regent Wallace Hall for doing. The public and regents, representing the public, have the right to know how a public institution is spending taxpayer money.
“No doubt many Texans believed at first blush that Hall went too far in his “burdensome” request for voluminous documents at UT. But I believe that once Texans study the matter, most will conclude that the Legislature has handled the matter poorly. The Legislature’s cure is worse than the disease, with the very real potential of harming all universities and colleges in Texas.”
Regents have fiduciary responsibility over the University. They should not need to fill out a request for information but should be provided any material they need to do their (volunteer) job. The Texas legislature unanimously passed a bill carried by Rep. Tony Dale this past session which provided school board members this protection. (Which was much needed – particularly in light of school boards in El Paso ISD, Beaumont ISD, Progreso IDS and others have failed to provide oversight needed in K-12.)
The Wallace Hall issue appears to be a witch hunt against a regent who is willing to ask tough questions of an administration unwilling to shed light on their decision-making. We must not dilute the ability of regents to provide oversight. We have too much at stake to deny Regents with the tools they need to do the job to which they are appointed. We need more leaders who are willing to take on these volunteer positions but the Legislature’s action will have a chilling effect on future candidates for appointments. We will not continue to get the best and the brightest willing to commit to public service if we tie their hands — or worse, attempt to remove them when they ask the tough questions.