By Kelley Shannon, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
With trust in government waning, a Texas law can help keep a closer watch on public officials. Even citizens who continue to have faith in government can use this law to stay better informed.
How is taxpayer money spent? What’s happening behind the scenes as government decisions are made?
The Texas Public Information Act produces answers to these crucial questions. The act has been here for us for 50 years and is essential in protecting our right to know.
Like a well-built old house, the landmark law is constantly in need of upkeep, yet it withstands the test of time. It can expose the truth.
At the half-century mark, let’s seize the moment to strengthen the Public Information Act to ensure it works for future generations. The nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas will explore this idea at its state conference Sept. 28 in Austin. Discussions will feature transparency advocates, state lawmakers, journalists and everyday Texans from East Texas to Uvalde who have fought for more openness, sometimes in matters of life and death.
The Public Information Act was at issue in a court victory in June to force the release of Texas Department of Public Safety records related to a 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The law was also the subject of legislation enacted Sept. 1 to close a loophole some police departments used to hide information when someone dies in law enforcement custody.
Other new legislation to keep the law up to date defines “business day” in the act to prevent government offices from wrongly shutting their doors to information requestors, as many did for months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally known as the Open Records Act when it was enacted in 1973, the Public Information Act is steeped in our state’s history. It came about in a tumultuous time after the Sharpstown scandal in state government. Attorney Bill Aleshire, then a legislative aide for a sponsor of the Open Records Act, recalls helping to write the bill using model legislation from the nonprofit group Common Cause and the best open records ideas from other states.
The Texas law became one of the strongest in the nation. It presumes state and local government records are open – giving citizens a great deal of power in asking for documents, emails, videos and other items – unless a specific exception prevents releasing the information. In most cases, government agencies must ask permission from the Texas Attorney General’s
Office to withhold records. The office is supposed to be an unbiased arbiter, with staffers acting as umpires, of sorts, in thousands of rulings every year.
The importance of the agency’s Open Government Division was highlighted in the recent Texas Senate impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was accused of abusing his power over the public information law. He was acquitted of that charge and all other impeachment counts.
Along with impartial decisions from the attorney general’s office, the Public Information Act needs updated, effective enforcement measures to hold individual government agencies accountable if they are not following the law.
Ideas on how to boost enforcement are plentiful, ranging from imposing financial penalties on misbehaving governments to increasing public officials’ training requirements to ensuring information requestors can recover attorneys’ fees if they must sue to obtain public records.
With the right tools, we can safeguard the intent of the law, which states in its preamble that the people insist on remaining informed.
“The people,” it says, “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.”
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, an Austin-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to protecting the public’s right to know and speak out about government.