By Kolten Parker
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published Aug. 11, 2013
AUSTIN — As the dust settles on the 83rd Texas Legislature, open government advocates are applauding new laws they say leverage evolving technology to increase access and shine light on all levels of government for both residents and officials.
Next month, Texas will become the first state allowing officials at all levels of government in the state to communicate with colleagues between official meetings — which has previously been banned — using an Internet message board maintained by the governing body. The online forum will be accessible to the public and content will be archived for six years and searchable.
“The public should know as much as possible about what government is doing,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who drafted the bill establishing the message boards.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the online message boards will benefit residents interested in keeping a close eye on local governments such as school boards and city councils.
“If (public officials) are tempted to have discussions between meetings that they shouldn’t be having out of public view, this gives them a way to do it that lets us, the people, in on it,” Shannon said.
Under other laws taking effect Sept. 1, officials will be able to use video conferencing technology to participate and even vote in meetings they can’t physically attend, as long as the public can hear and see them.
“It really is helpful for an official who is incapacitated, on the road, or tied up with a family emergency out of town to be able to participate in public business long distance,” Baggett said, adding that the change is a “sign of the times.”
Electronic messages sent by a public official relating to government business, whether on a private or public device, will be accessible to the public. Open government advocates worried that without this change, officials could use private cellphones and email accounts to get around open records laws.
The change, Baggett said, will modernize the Texas Public Information Act, which was passed in 1973.
“The attorney general’s office has been ruling in recent years that this information is public, but it wasn’t written precisely that way into law,” Shannon said.
Open government advocates also have touted a law that went into effect in June that requires a prospective plaintiff to give a news publisher an opportunity to correct, clarify or withdraw false content before filing a defamation suit. Shannon said the change will minimize damages in libel cases.
Not all open government bills were successful, though. A few proposed tweaks to disclosure laws regarding officials’ personal financial statements — which detail properties and stocks owned, income and other business interests outside of the Legislature — failed this session.
For example, one would have required the Texas Ethics Commission to make the statements available online.
Although some news sources, including the San Antonio Express-News, have published some or all of the statements, individuals wishing to get their own copies must file a records request or go to the TEC’s Austin office.
The value of these newly passed laws will be determined by the officials who put them into practice, Shannon said.
“Everybody has different interests in watching their government,” Shannon said. “This session, these laws that help people watch their government were strengthened.”