By Kelley Shannon
Texans have something to celebrate during Sunshine Week this year. But we also have more work to do to protect the public’s right to know about our government.
Sunshine Week, March 15-21, is an annual national initiative proclaiming the importance of access to public information.
First, the bright spot for Texas: Essential elements of contracts between governments and private companies – including pricing and promises – are public again under a law that took effect Jan. 1.
It seems like those basics of how taxpayer dollars are spent should be easily accessible, doesn’t it? They were, for years, under our Texas Public Information Act. But the Texas Supreme Court in 2015 blocked the sunshine and in many cases banished that tax-dollar information into the darkness.
The court’s action resulted in the Texas Attorney General’s Office issuing more than 4,000 rulings from mid-2015 through 2019 allowing governments and private entities to withhold contract details, sometimes even hiding the final price.
Gone from public view were records on school construction contracts; prison supply purchases; Uber, Lyft and Yellow Cab licensing; naming rights agreements at public buildings and stadiums; marketing deals between governments and private firms; and many more tax-dollar expenditures.
After working on it two legislative sessions, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, passed Senate Bill 943 in 2019, reopening key contracting records.
“If Texans are to hold their public officials accountable, access to public information is essential,” Watson said in a joint statement with Capriglione.
Among the law’s early success stories is disclosure of the city of McAllen’s contract with entertainer Enrique Iglesias to perform at a holiday festival. For four years, the city refused to reveal what it paid and promised Iglesias, but the newly released contract reveals it paid $485,000. It agreed to charter a flight for the performer from Mexico and supply his backstage with steak, sushi, sashimi and aloe juice with pulp.
Other previously concealed contracts are now coming to light across the state. Open government advocates and everyday Texans will be watching to make sure the new law works as intended.
Meanwhile, still on the to-do list in the Texas Legislature are other important bills to open information.
Accuracy is crucial, whether in news reporting, vetting political candidates or checking someone’s background for employment, credit scores or lending. Birthdates in public records allow for getting it right. Yet, another court ruling has been closing off this vital information. Legislation is needed in 2021 to respond to the court and enhance accuracy.
When it comes to police records surrounding an in-custody death, families and the public need to know what transpired to hold law enforcement accountable.
Many law enforcement agencies use part of the Public Information Act that was intended to protect the living who were arrested but never convicted to instead hide records when an arrested person dies in custody. It’s beyond time to close that loophole.
It’s also time for a law to codify what the attorney general’s office has long stated: Electronic information shall be provided in the format a requestor prefers if it is stored that way and can be provided at no greater expense or time. For example, if government data is stored in a searchable and sortable electronic spreadsheet and it’s requested that way, it should be provided as a spreadsheet – not in some other less useful format.
Stay tuned for additional public information initiatives in the months to come. If there’s one thing certain about the quest for open government in Texas, it’s that the effort never ends.
We must remain vigilant and protect the public’s right to know.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, based in Austin. For more information about the foundation and regional open government seminars go to www.foift.org.