Know your open government rights, remember these basics
By Kelley Shannon
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
Whatever our political views, certainly we can agree we have the right to know how government is conducting business. How are taxpayer dollars spent? Who is influencing decisions?
Access to information allows us to speak up and hold public officials accountable, while a lack of transparency diminishes trust in government.
The Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act are the state’s main open government laws. Based on recent frequently asked questions about these laws, here are a few important reminders:
Requested information must be provided promptly. That means as soon as possible and without delay. It’s a misconception that a governmental body, once it receives a written request for information, can wait up to 10 days to make the records available. Ten business days is the deadline under the Public Information Act for the governmental entity to ask for a Texas attorney general ruling if it is attempting to withhold information.
Records requests can be made in multiple ways. Some government offices these days insist that requestors use a specific online form when making a public records request. Wrong! Using an online form is optional. Written requests may also be made via email, regular or certified mail or hand delivery. If you wish to email your request and can’t find the appropriate address on a government’s website, call and ask for it. Note: If a government office designates a single email address for records requests, then emailed requests must be sent there.
Searchable-sortable information should be made available. Electronic information shall be provided in the format a requestor prefers if it is stored that way and can be provided in that format at no greater expense or time, the attorney general’s office has stated. So, if government data is stored in a searchable and sortable electronic spreadsheet and it’s requested in that format, it should be provided as a spreadsheet rather than as a PDF, which can be less useful when looking at numbers and large amounts of information.
Closed-door meetings are for deliberations only, and only for certain subjects. The Texas Open Meetings Act allows a governing body to meet in a closed or “executive” session in some cases, such as to consult an attorney for legitimate legal questions or to discuss the purchase of property. Public officials can only deliberate behind closed doors. Any vote or final action must happen in public.
A ‘walking quorum’ is a no-no. A quorum of a governmental body discussing official business is supposed to occur in a posted public meeting. Members of a governing board cannot knowingly have one-on-one conversations about public business – whether talking, emailing or texting – when it is part of a series of private communications that will ultimately constitute a quorum. This deliberate behavior, known as a “walking quorum,” is banned, and the Legislature clarified that again in 2019. Texas law does allow discussion of business outside of a public meeting through a publicly viewable online message board.
The public can comment at meetings. Under a law that took effect in September 2019, governing bodies must allow members of the public wishing to speak on an issue on the agenda of an open meeting to do so before or when it’s considered. Reasonable rules can be adopted limiting the total amount of time a member of the public may address the body on an item. Officials cannot prohibit the person from criticizing the governing body or its acts, policies or services.
These and other topics will be addressed in a series of open government seminars the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is participating in this year with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. The first seminar will be Feb. 25 in Corpus Christi, hosted by state Rep. Todd Hunter.
Let’s take every opportunity in 2020 to improve knowledge of Texas’ transparency laws. That, in turn, can lead to more effective government.