Analysis: Why you should treat elected officials like your dog
For four years, local and state governments in Texas were allowed to keep a lot of public business hidden. New laws make more of that information public. But what did they get away with in the meantime?
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Imagine a dog, a Labrador-border collie mix named Dixie. Our friendly beast likes food and can reach things left within a foot of the edge of the kitchen counter.
Dixie knows that eating things on the counter will get her in big trouble, but she is a dog and does what dogs do when their humans aren’t paying attention. There is practical evidence that she especially likes steaks and hamburgers.
But she won’t make her move when anyone is watching, a tendency she shares with our elected officials.
The treat in question here is an appearance by Enrique Iglesias, the guest of honor for a holiday parade in McAllen in 2015. The duly elected celebrity-struck members of that City Council paid $485,000 for the music star’s performance, and then fought public disclosure of the amount and details of the contract for more than four years.
The details were juicy, literally, as The Texas Tribune’s Emma Platoff reported: The contract required two bottles of aloe juice — one with pulp, one without — in his dressing room. It required a pre-show meal of steak and chicken; a post-show list of sushi, water, Ketel One Vodka, orange Gatorade, three “UNOPENED” bags of strawberry Twizzlers and two washed king-sized sheets (“THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT,” the contract noted); and a list of foods and drinks for a crew of 20 to 30 people. The city had to pay for setting up the stage to the performer’s specifications; provide chartered flights from and to Guadalajara, Mexico; cover two dozen hotel rooms and so on — all on top of the $485,000 fee for his performance.
It’s a freaky list, but that’s show business. What’s really consequential here is that public money financed the whole enterprise, and the public officials who spent it tried every which way to avoid telling their voters how much the extravaganza cost.
They relied on state laws and Texas Supreme Court rulings written to hold the secrecy of government contractors over the interests of taxpayers. It took the Legislature four years to fix it, but lawmakers led by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, closed two loopholes in last year’s legislative session — taking away the exceptions that allowed McAllen to keep the Iglesias contract under wraps.
The law still protects trade secrets and the like, but governments in Texas have to share information about costs and bids and such that they were routinely keeping from the public in the wake of a 2015 decision by the Texas Supreme Court.
But the old law of the land prevailed for four years, blocking open-information requests for any government with enough gumption and creativeness to employ it. As the Tribune reported in 2016, blocked requests included one to the city of Houston for the number of driver permits issued to Uber, the food service deal in Kaufman County’s public schools and details from the Texas Department of Insurance’s contract for interpretation services.
Records like those were open before the Supreme Court intervened, and now, thanks to the recent changes in the law, they’re open again.
As with the Iglesias ignominy, the details might come out any day now on any of those requests — or others — and might even be as hilarious as McAllen’s 2015 misadventure.
But that doesn’t exactly set things right. Getting away with something for a year, or for four years, is different from not getting away with it at all. We can go back and see what happened, but probably not in a time frame that allows us to do anything to stop a bad deal, or a goofy one. It’s amazing what can happen when you’re not looking — or aren’t allowed to look.
Anyone seen Dixie?
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the nationality of Enrique Iglesias.
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