TEXAS VIEW: Plan to protect public should be public

By Victoria Advocate

After Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Victoria, people naturally had questions about how well prepared the community was.

To answer that question, the public needs to know what the plan was. But when the Victoria Advocate asked for a copy of the city and county’s emergency response plan, officials said it was secret.

They pointed to a 2013 Texas Attorney General opinion that said emergency plans could be kept secret to protect homeland security. Never mind that almost all of the voluminous document would in no way help terrorists.

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed after the Victoria Advocate reported Dec. 10 on this secrecy. In that story, national experts explained why an open-government policy is considered the best practice. After all, the public needs to be involved in planning for disasters.

“Regular people should be involved in the planning process,” said Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University professor. “When officials keep plans secret, they’re not doing anyone any favors — even themselves.”

Last week, Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller said he and Victoria Mayor Paul Polasek had reconsidered and would make the plan available as soon as the emergency response coordinator has a chance to review the document and redact any sensitive information. Zeller said he expected the plan would be available for public review sometime in February.

That’s good news for those who believe government works the best in the open. That’s what Abraham Lincoln believed when he spoke of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” That’s what legislators had in mind when they crafted the Texas Public Information Act after the 1973 Sharpstown stock fraud scandal involving state officials. The state act presumes that information is public and that “government is the servant and not the master of the people.”

In this instance — and too many others – public officials offer three standard excuses in favor of secrecy:

No one in the public has ever asked before for the information.

The information is too technical for the public to understand.

The information will reveal secrets that will help the bad guys.

Of course, this is all easily answered by those who embrace open government:

The public should be invited and encouraged to be part of the process of crafting an emergency response plan. That is what DeWitt County officials are doing now.

The public is smarter than public officials often give them credit for. Scrutiny will make any important public document better, not worse.

Any truly sensitive information can be redacted, as is happening now.

Victoria City Councilman Jeff Bauknight asked for his own copy after questioning how the city and county reacted during and after Harvey made landfall. He realized then that most public officials had little to no information about the plan.

Clarke, who authored “Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination,” said effective disaster planning should be accessible and developed with the help of the public and elected officials.

“I’m not saying that everybody needs to know where the nuclear codes are — that’s not what we’re talking about,” Clarke said. “We’re talking about if the water system is vulnerable, how come?”

The public should ask such questions when Victoria’s emergency plan becomes available sometime in February. The same public process should play out in other Crossroads counties, such as Jackson, which already has its plan posted online, and DeWitt. Calhoun also readily shared its plan with the Advocate and the public.

After all, a public emergency plan will work only if the public is prepared. That’s just common sense — and good government.