We Texans have a history of straight talk and openness, and our state’s public information laws reflect it.
Shining light on our government allows democracy to flourish. As we celebrate that light during national Sunshine Week from March 13-19, let’s be thankful that Texas laws value the public’s right to know through broad access to records and meetings.
But we cannot grow complacent. We must fight to keep the laws strong.
Every year, there are attempts to chip away at our Texas transparency in the courts, at the Legislature and in government offices.
Questions from Texans frequently arise about potential violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Has a school board held an illegal vote behind closed doors? Doesn’t a city council have to post the specifics of its meeting agenda in advance?
When it comes to the Texas Public Information Act, which governs access to government records, citizens sometimes find themselves waiting far too long after making a records request or wrongly told that no such documents exist. Or, the requester is given an outlandish estimate of hundreds or thousands of dollars for the cost of obtaining the records. That cost becomes a barrier to information.
To address these and other public access issues, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is hosting a series of Open Government Seminars around the state in cooperation with the Attorney General’s office to provide training in open records and open meetings laws.
The first two scheduled seminars this year are in the Houston area on May 3 and in El Paso on May 10. More cities will be added soon. (Visit www.foift.org for details.)
These seminars explain the state open government laws and how they are affected by the actions of the 2015 Legislature and recent court rulings.
Some Texas court rulings this past year have been especially troublesome for information access. They have made it easier for nonprofit agencies to shield their financial records even if they perform government duties. They have closed off more birthdates from view in public records. They have given private corporations more ability to keep their government contracts secret.
On the bright side, Texas lawmakers last year rejected some of the most egregious anti-transparency proposals before them and passed several measures promoting openness.
Newly enacted laws required many local governments to post videotaped recordings of their public meetings online; established a searchable database listing the “interested parties” in major state and local government contracts; required police departments to file prompt reports with the state in officer-involved shootings; and restored the freedom of journalists to report on allegations of wrongdoing in matters of public interest.
Information is necessary to participate in our government and hold it accountable. Our nation’s founders treasured the free flow of information as essential to protecting all of our liberties. And, as the Texas Public Information Act explains, in our state we have an inherent right to know:
“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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a non-profit promoting open government laws and the First Amendment rights of free speech and press.