|FOI Column – September 2022
Times of trouble remind us Texas open government laws are here for everyone
By Kelley Shannon
Across the state, Texans are keeping a closer eye on their government. They’re asking questions and demanding information. There’s a renewed awareness of our transparency laws.
Times of trouble can remind us all that the people have a right to know, and Texas certainly has been enduring months of difficulty following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.
Parents, community residents, journalists and others want details about the Uvalde tragedy to learn exactly how law enforcement responded and how the young man who committed the killings possibly might have been stopped before that day in May. The hope is to prevent a repeat of this horror and to ensure accountability.
We are still waiting for information.
The information that has trickled out has sometimes been inaccurate or incomplete. For many, this deepens the pain. Shining light on truth is necessary, even when it’s tough to bear.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has urged law enforcement and government officials at all levels – school district, city, county, state and federal – to promptly release critical records related to the shootings. Multiple news organizations filed a lawsuit this summer against the Texas Department of Public Safety to force the release of information such as 911 calls, video and police statements. The case is pending.
These barriers to public records and other transparency and First Amendment issues are on the agenda at the FOI Foundation’s state conference Sept. 29 in Austin. The keynote panel will be a bipartisan preview of open government measures in the 2023 Texas Legislature with Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas. Members of the public are welcome to register and attend the conference.
Throughout the year, the FOI Foundation helps Texans understand and use the state’s Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act and protects the rights of free speech and free press.
It isn’t always a catastrophe that spurs interest in transparency. Citizens want to know more about public spending on special projects or contracts or tax breaks for private companies. Taxpayers want to ask questions about a school district’s policies, local construction permitting or health inspections.
Fortunately, many public officials understand they are the custodian of the people’s information, not the owners of it, and they promptly provide it. But that’s not always the case.
Some governments try to block information access by intimidating requesters with unreasonably large cost estimates for producing public records. Some wrongly tell the public they must use an online request form to obtain records. (An online form is optional. A written Texas Public Information Act request can also be made through email or on paper.) Lately, certain governments have come up with unusual methods to try to thwart the free flow of information.
Kyle City Council members recently signed confidentiality agreements stating they could not talk to the public about matters discussed in a closed meeting, the Hays Free Press reported. However, elected officials have a First Amendment right to speak, if they choose to, and a confidentiality agreement doesn’t override the Public Information Act in determining which records are accessible to citizens.
During the COVID-19 pandemic a number of government agencies tried to make up their own rules about the Public Information Act by deciding not to respond to requests when their employees were working remotely, even though government was open for other business.
Appreciation for the people’s right to know is growing, and it’s a good thing. Elected leaders need to recognize this and encourage it.
Access to public information is essential for exercising the right to speak out and hold government accountable as we participate in our democracy.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) based in Austin. Information about the foundation’s Sept. 29 state conference is available at www.foift.org in the “activities and programs” tab.