Commentary: Know Texas’ open records laws

By Kelley Shannon
Guest Columnist
The Monitor
Originally published June 9, 2014

Picture yourself attending a local government meeting because you’re curious about the hiring of a new city manager. Suddenly, city commissioners go into a closed-door session to talk secretly. Can they do that? Is it legal?

Or, let’s say, you’ve requested information from your school district about its classroom curriculum. You are told obtaining those documents will cost hundreds of dollars. What can you do? Conversely, if you are a public official, what does the law allow you to charge for a large and time-consuming public records request?

These and other questions about open records and open meetings laws will be answered on June 17 when the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, in cooperation with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, hosts an Open Government Seminar at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce offices located at 1200 Ash Ave.

It’s one in a series of such seminars throughout the state that will be held this year.

A free morning session will focus on basics of the Texas Public Information Act and cost rules. An afternoon session will concentrate on the Texas Open Meetings Act. The fee for the afternoon session is $50.

Both sessions qualify as state-required open government training credit for public employees. Additionally, attorneys attending the seminar can obtain continuing legal education credit through the State Bar of Texas.

Everyone is welcome. The seminar is particularly helpful for journalists and area residents who want to actively keep a watch on their government. The more informed people are, the better equipped they are to hold government accountable.

Access to information about government is a cornerstone of our democracy that was recognized by our founding fathers.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” James Madison warned.

It’s a straightforward concept and basic civics.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has been emphasizing this notion for more than 35 years. The nonprofit organization was formed in 1978 and has grown into one of the nation’s strongest advocates for open government and the First Amendment rights of free speech and press.

As a nonpartisan organization, the FOI Foundation works with officeholders of all political parties. In addition to offering open government seminars around the state, the foundation hosts an annual state conference each year in Austin. (This year’s state conference is Sept. 12.) The foundation also helps college and university journalism students learn to incorporate public records into their reporting.

One of the FOI Foundation’s most popular services is the FOI Hotline that puts callers in touch with volunteer attorneys who can provide general information about open government laws. The hotline number is (800)580-6651.

At the Texas Capitol, foundation volunteers speak out on proposed open government legislation, and in the courts they get involved in cases that address important legal issues of open government and free speech and press.

Texas’ open records and open meetings laws have been around more than 40 years. Laws have been updated from time to time and the June 17 seminar in McAllen will explain recent changes that came about during the 2013 Legislative session. Several recently passed laws incorporate new technology in open government statutes.

The Monitor is a co-sponsor of the McAllen seminar. To learn more, go to www.foift.org or call the FOI Foundation at (512) 377-1575. We ask that you register in advance for the seminar, if possible, so we can plan for the expected number of attendees, but walk-in guests are welcome. You may attend either or both sessions on June 17. We’ll get going at 9 a.m.

It will be a day of sharing knowledge and learning new ways to participate in open government, an essential part of our free society.

Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit organization that encourages a greater appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the First Amendment.