By Kelley Shannon
Bold steps nearly 50 years ago created a landmark protection for the people’s right to know in Texas.
Lawmakers approved the state’s open records law, now known as the Texas Public Information Act. Born out of a political financial scandal, the act’s aim was to allow citizens to hold public officials accountable.
For the most part, this Texas transparency law has served us well.
It’s essential in many Texans’ routine interactions with their government as they request police reports and school budget documents and so much more. It has been used to expose government action – or inaction – in the wake of hurricanes and floods and turbulent economic times.
Now, amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Public Information Act is having another pivotal moment as Texans try to keep a watch on government during a pandemic.
Where are COVID-19 clusters occurring? Are elderly loved ones safe? What’s the latest on COVID testing and vaccine distribution? How are taxpayer dollars being spent on pandemic aid in our communities?
The Texas Public Information Act is supposed to help us answer these questions of life and death and following the money. But in many cases, governments are using the pandemic itself to ignore them.
Some government offices closed their doors to the public to prevent spread of the virus and, citing attorney general guidance, declared this physical office closure doesn’t count as business days for responding to Public Information Act requests. That’s even if government employees are getting paid to work remotely with electronic access to records. This obstruction could go on indefinitely. It’s an outdated approach when much of the work world is operating remotely via email and Zoom meetings.
Clearly, there’s a flaw in the interpretation of the law. And it can be repaired.
Today’s state legislators, like their predecessors a half century ago, have the chance to take their own historic stand to safeguard the free flow of information for years to come.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and 20 other diverse organizations have formed the Transparent and Accountable Government Coalition to raise awareness about transparency laws and to support reforms in the 2021 legislative session. Some of these issues already existed, but the pandemic magnified them.
In addition to Public Information Act updates, the virtual meetings provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act needs lawmakers’ attention. We must ensure fair rules for public participation in online government meetings, including having a phone call-in line for those without Internet access.
State law also should clarify that the locations of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are public information. The TAG Coalition is working on these measures and several other open government bills, such as one calling for posting more government contracts online.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, will participate in a webinar about government financial transparency and how we can enhance citizens’ ability to obtain information through today’s technology. This free program is being hosted by the Texas Association of Broadcasters.
Lawmakers in both political parties are interested in working together to protect and expand public information access. It’s a continuous job to make sure Texas laws keep pace with modern times and that governments adhere to the letter and the spirit of our transparency laws.
This pandemic era presents the opportunity to take yet another step on that honorable path.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. For more information go to www.foift.org.