By Kelley Shannon
With state lawmakers immersed in the COVID-19 pandemic response and Texas’ electricity failures, the public’s access to information must be at the forefront of the Legislature’s actions. Information allows citizens to watch over their government, to speak out and to ask questions.
There’s no better time than Sunshine Week, starting March 14, to emphasize the importance of the people’s right to know.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and other open government proponents are taking part in a Sunshine Week online discussion March 18 hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation as the Texas legislative session approaches its midway point. Fortunately, lawmakers in both political parties are working to enact timely transparency legislation.
Texas Public Information Act compliance. Throughout the pandemic, many government offices have not responded to open records requests, citing the physical closure of their offices or because they were operating on a “skeleton crew” with staffers working remotely. House Bill 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Senate Bill 925 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, define business days under the Public Information Act to ensure timely responses by governments.
Furthermore, SB 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and HB 3627 by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, clarify existing law pertaining to “catastrophe notices” that governments can file to briefly suspend TPIA responses during a disaster. This legislation adds specifics to the law to prevent abuse.
Enforcement measures requiring governments to respond to public information requestors, even if no responsive records are found, are spelled out in SB 927 by Zaffirini and HB 3015 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston.
Texas Open Meeting Act improvements. Virtual meetings allowed under the Texas Open Meetings Act have worked well for many governments during the pandemic, but in some cases rules for public comment have been unfairly imposed and telephone call-in lines have not been provided to accommodate those without Internet. SB 924 by Zaffirini and HB 2683 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, address these concerns.
Nursing home and assisted living pandemic transparency. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, filed SB 882 so that nursing home residents and their loved ones can get the information they need about communicable disease outbreaks, including COVID-19. Zaffirini filed a similar bill, SB 930, as did Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, with HB 3306.
Online contracts. Legislation to require more online posting of government contracts would help citizens better track how tax dollars are spent, during a pandemic or any other time. Capriglione filed HB 2913 and Zaffirini filed SB 929 to achieve this goal.
Dates of birth in public records. Access to a birthdate in a government record promotes accuracy. It can aid citizens vetting a candidate for office; journalists identifying a person in a crime report; or banks, credit report companies and employers relying on public record background checks to conduct business. HB 3535 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and SB 926 by Zaffirini address this important measure.
Searchable-sortable records. When government information is stored in spreadsheets or other electronic formats, a requestor may need the data in that electronic format for searching, sorting and organizing. HB 1810 by Capriglione; SB 928 by Zaffirini; and SB 729 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, require information to be provided the requested available electronic format.
Law enforcement transparency. House and Senate members are also working to improve access to police records involving in-custody deaths and to body camera and dash camera video. This helps to ensure public accountability. Key bills are HB 2383 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso and SB 975 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
This Texas legislative session is an unusual one amid the coronavirus pandemic. But ensuring access to public information is a familiar endeavor and always necessary.
Now is a crucial time to protect this basic right.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. For more information go to www.foift.org.