From News 4 San Antonio
SAN ANTONIO – Here at News 4 San Antonio we believe you have the right to know what your government is up to, and how it spends your tax dollars. Legislation being considered up in Austin would block you from seeing the activity of a very important state agency. News 4 Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila was asked to testify on the bill and explains what it would do.
Over the past couple of years we’ve uncovered overcharging and other violations by towing companies. We also revealed details about a faulty elevator that killed a San Antonio woman.
One of the ways we got that information was by filing open records requests with the agency that investigates those and dozens of other industries: the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
Now lawmakers like Phil Stephenson, who represents Fort Bend County near Houston, want to prevent the public from seeing complaints and investigations handled by TDLR. Under Stephenson’s bill they would no longer be accessible through open records requests.
“Shielding that from public view doesn’t help anybody. All it does is prevent people from knowing what their government is doing,” said Arif Panju, an attorney with the group Institute for Justice.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas asked Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila to testify before the Texas House committee that is considering the open records bill.
“It’s important information for people to know so that they don’t get ripped off and in the case of elevators, it could be life-saving information,” Avila told the panel.
Former San Antonio City Councilman Roland Gutierrez is one of the house members on the committee which will vote on the bill this month. They also heard from the bill’s author, Representative Stephenson, who says he wants the records kept secret because they could damage the reputations of businesses TDLR investigates. Stephenson also claims the agency is too busy to respond to open records requests.
After the hearing Avila asked Representative Stephenson, “If there are a lot of complaints against a certain tow truck company or an elevator, shouldn’t people know about that?”
Stephenson replied, “I don’t think that’s an issue, that’s out of proportion of what this bill is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be about humans, making sure their reputation is not hurt.”
“What if they’re ripping off consumers?” Avila asked.
At that point Stephenson’s chief of staff abruptly ended the interview, saying the Representative had to leave to attend another committee meeting.
Stephenson’s bill is being opposed by some industry groups that are regulated by TDLR. Barbers, and cat and dog breeders, for example, say they would lose the right to look at complaints made against them, to see what they’re being accused of. We’ll let you know how legislators vote in the coming weeks.