By KELLEY SHANNON
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
Fifty years ago, responding to public demand in an era of reform, Texas enacted a sweeping law ensuring the people’s right to know about their government.
The Texas Public Information Act – originally known as the Open Records Act when it passed in 1973 – was one of the strongest transparency laws in the nation. It allowed Texans to hold their state and local governments accountable by obtaining all sorts of public records.
“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,” stated the act, born after the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal that gripped state government.
Despite those bold words, the act has been eroded by subsequent legislation, court rulings and maneuvers by some government officials to sidestep the law. In the current Texas legislative session, we the people must protect and strengthen the Public Information Act and maintain our state’s open government legacy.
The Texas Sunshine Coalition is doing exactly that. Sixteen diverse organizations are working together to push for bipartisan transparency legislation. The nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is part of the coalition and was founded on the belief that access to public records allows everyone to scrutinize and speak up about government.
The Sunshine Coalition aims to shore up the Public Information Act so taxpayers can view “super public” information and other key provisions in government contracts; create a uniform “business days” definition requiring governments to respond to public records requests, even on days of remote work; require that governments provide certain data to requestors in searchable-sortable spreadsheets; and restore public access to dates of birth in criminal justice and political candidate records.
Another coalition pillar is to allow recovery of attorneys’ fees if a requestor must sue to get public information. A series of court decisions have made this extremely difficult by allowing governments to hand over documents at the last minute – after months of litigation – and avoid paying any of the requestor’s legal fees. Consequently, governments may be inclined to ignore or delay records requests.
Meanwhile, the FOI Foundation of Texas works every legislative session to defend the Texas Open Meetings Act, the state’s other major transparency law that was expanded during the early 1970s reform movement. Its enforcement provisions must remain available to everyday citizens. That includes civil court action, when necessary, to prevent or compel an action by a government to ensure compliance with the open meetings law. The FOI Foundation weighed in on this provision with an amicus brief in court.
In another recent legal brief, the FOI Foundation supported the Odessa American in the newspaper’s ongoing lawsuit against the city of Odessa to enforce the release of basic public information “promptly,” as called for in the Public Information Act.
Government officials who stall by seeking unnecessary attorney general rulings or ignoring requestors are not honoring the intentions of the law. All state and local government information in Texas is presumed to be available to the public, unless specific legal exceptions apply.
Many Texans believe our state is exceptional; the historic Public Information Act is one of the reasons it is special. The 2023 legislative session is an excellent time to improve this landmark law governing the people’s right to know.
Today’s lawmakers have an opportunity to continue their predecessors’ commitment to open government so that it endures for generations to come.
Kelley Shannon is the executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. For more information, visit https://www.foift.org.