By Kelley Shannon
Reopening public places amid the COVID-19 pandemic should certainly be carried out with caution. Government offices are no exception.
Yet citizens must have the ability to watch over their government, even during an emergency. Especially during an emergency.
It’s long past time to reopen public access to government records and meetings that have been shut off for months. This can happen even if government employees continue to work from home for safety reasons.
The Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act – two major open government laws that help us learn about everything from local zoning decisions to school safety to toxic dumps – have suffered serious setbacks since March, when the coronavirus swept in.
Some governments misused a provision in the law allowing “catastrophe notices,” which are intended to temporarily postpone responses to public information requests because of a hurricane, flood, epidemic or other calamity. Certain governments tried to turn the temporary halt into an indefinite one.
Others developed their own questionable policies about when government offices are considered “closed” or operating on “skeleton crew,” days not counted as business days for the Public Information Act. However, if employees paid by tax dollars are on duty and working from home and records are accessible electronically, as so many records are today, why can’t a citizen’s public information request be answered?
Clearly, clarifications and updates are needed in the Texas Public Information Act to reflect workplace realities in modern times. We need uniformity in how the law is applied.
Citizens requesting information about coronavirus outbreaks and testing have encountered additional roadblocks with local officials and state agencies. For example, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission tried to withhold data about which nursing homes and assisted living centers have experienced COVID-19 cases, even though such location information didn’t violate individual patient privacy. Fortunately, the attorney general’s office ruled in July against almost all of the commission’s secrecy arguments. Now the data is posted online. Barriers to obtaining coronavirus cluster information still remain with some local governments.
Numerous complaints have emerged during the pandemic about lack of access to government meetings. Among the problems: Technical glitches preventing viewing of online meetings; lack of detail in public notices about how to log in to a virtual meeting; bans on citizens attending a meeting in person when there is no online or phone option offered as an alternative; and unreasonable restrictions on public comments at government meetings.
The non-profit FOI Foundation is partnering with other organizations in online discussions this fall to help Texans voice their concerns and understand their open government rights. In an event hosted by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the senator noted Texas transparency laws are built on the principle that light must shine on our government.
“The people deserve to know how their governments are run and how their tax dollars are spent, and those entrusted with power have a responsibility to tell them,” she said. “In other words, we should not be afraid of the light. The availability of information is essential to a functioning democracy.”
Another online primer on government transparency takes place Thursday, Oct. 22, hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. It is free and open to the public.
Expect further freedom of information discussions in upcoming weeks and months as Texans navigate open records and meetings laws during the coronavirus pandemic and speak up for other needed transparency measures.
At all times we must protect the public’s vitally important right to know.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a non-profit that promotes open government and protects the First Amendment liberties free speech and free press.