Legislators from both political parties are igniting interest in transparency and creating the opportunity for all lawmakers to protect the people’s right to know. They’re carrying on our state’s legacy of openness.
When the reform-minded 1973 Legislature enacted the Texas Public Information Act, known then as the Open Records Act, it established one of the nation’s strongest transparency laws. This year marks its 50th anniversary. Court rulings and other actions have weakened the law, but as we celebrate open government during Sunshine Month throughout March, let’s rally around the bills Texas legislators have filed this session to fortify the landmark act:
Contracting transparency: Access to government contracts allows taxpayers to see how their money is spent. A bipartisan proposal would enhance a law passed in 2019, ensuring the release of “super public” information, including the overall contract price and description of items and services. Senate Bill 680 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, and House Bill 2492 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, are the bills addressing contracting transparency.
Public records business days: A definition of “business day” in the Public Information Act is needed to provide consistency for everyone seeking public records. Currently, governments declare on their own which days they are open or closed for handling TPIA requests. Sometimes they don’t respond to requests. Proposals to correct this are contained in Senate Bill 618 by Johnson; House Bill 2135 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; and Senate Bills 43 and 44 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
Dates of birth: Birthdates in criminal justice documents, such as police reports and incarceration records, and in candidates’ applications for public office allow the public to accurately identify a person. Correctly identifying someone charged with a crime protects the reputation of those who have the same name but aren’t facing charges. A date of birth also helps with thorough vetting of political candidates. Senate Bill 46 by Zaffirini and House Bill 2309 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, allow access to birthdates in these records.
Public records and attorneys’ fees: If a records requestor runs into roadblocks and must sue to obtain public documents, the ability to recover legal fees levels the playing field between that individual and the government, especially if a government hands over records at the last minute after months of costly litigation. This legislation is House Bill 2874 by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo.
Searchable-sortable records: While some governments provide data in searchable-sortable spreadsheet form, often making it easier to analyze, others do not. Senate Bill 965 by Johnson, Senate Bill 45 by Zaffirini and House Bill 2493 by Capriglione would codify the ability to obtain searchable-sortable records if such a format is available.
These measures are supported by the Texas Sunshine Coalition, made up of more than 15 diverse organizations united around the principle that access to information is essential in advocating for public policy and participating in our democracy.
Additional proposed transparency measures deal with public meetings, police accountability and other timely subjects.
For example, when someone dies in police custody, the public needs to know what happened. Some law enforcement agencies use a loophole in the Public Information Act to withhold records. Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, filed House Bill 30 to remedy the problem.
Addressing public notices, Senate Bill 943 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and House Bill 2178 by Hunter would require government notices that by law must be published in a newspaper to also be posted at no extra cost on the newspaper’s website and on a Texas Press Association statewide public notice website. This posting through a neutral third party provides an easy, reliable source for viewing public notices.
Transparency advocates will be speaking out until the legislative session ends May 29 to urge passage of these proposals that shine light on government, enabling us to hold it accountable.
Simply put, open government is good government.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit based in Austin.
Thanks for a great editorial. Open government is a must have to ensure fiscal accountability and transparency. But the laws don’t have a lot of teeth to make government comply with the law.
A community needs a good newspaper and advocates to help in ensuring government complies with both open meetings and open records laws. The press should then disseminate information that the public has the right to know to help achieve transparency.
It’s past time that both of our city boards receive an internal audit that the city tried to conduct in 2019, but the boards shut down through political pressure.
I bet most newspaper readers do not know that the Port shut down the city internal auditor in 2019 from assessing the port’s FEMA liabilities only to receive the bill in 2021 for $10.7 million. The question is, why not?
This much-needed editorial comment, along with your amplification on the role of a free press and unbiased community voices, shows the exceptional wisdom of the Founders of our republic. They understood that organizations with the breadth of power that government wields ALWAYS will eventually degenerate into self-protecting behaviors. This is not mindless anti-government blubbering; it simply is a recognition of human nature and its tendencies when it is not checked effectively.
Perhaps I'm imagining things, but it seems to me one very salutary result of recent revelations of government deceit at all levels is that the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. From indifference to government excess, there seems to be, all over America, a new enthusiasm to force transparency and demand the people's business be available for examination without running a gamut of impediments designed to avoid doing what should be done in any truly free society.
The next, even greater hurdle, will be the movement to enforce the law top to bottom, and to obliterate the two-tier system of justice that openly prevails in this country. (179)
Sorry, have to train to 150. And that's all I have to say about that.
Thank you for the update regarding transparency in government information!
According to this Guest Column, in 1973 Legislature enacted the Texas Public Information Act, known then as the Open Records Act (ORA), implementing one of the nation’s strongest transparency laws.
Now during our Texas legislators have filed 15 Bills this session to fortify the landmark act:
• Contracting transparency: SB 680 and HB 2492.
• Public records business days: SB 618; HB 2135; and SBills 43 and 44.
• Dates of birth: SB 46 and HB 2309.
• Public records and attorneys’ fees: HB 2874.
• Searchable-sortable records: SB 965, SB 45 and HB 2493.
• Additional proposed transparency measures deal with public meetings, police accountability and other timely subjects. HB 30.
• Addressing public notices: SB 943, and HB 2178.
Why do we need 15 Bills to “fortify ORA”? Why not fix the base problem and “reword” ORA? Just my thoughts. (135)
There is an excellent and very astute point in the comment that, in essence asks, "why not just rewrite the existing legislature to incorporate the clarity and forcefulness needed?"
Considering how these constant legislative adds, revise, append, replace, clauses have created a circuitous multi hyphenated read which stupefies a straight line context for any reader. That reading difficulty leads to asking, why is that methodology always adopted?
A simple conclusion is that these methods serve some undisclosed value or personal desire.
A highly critical evaluation could arrive at the conclusion that the purpose of this method is to give the acknowledgement desired by those that make the incremental changes. An offering of legislation gives the author(s) personal recognition i.e. (sponsored by, attaboy) whereas a total rewrite would require a broad consensus approval and dilution of individual's acknowledgement. This maybe a cynical opinion, but does provide a probable reason that our statutes and laws are difficult ( a lawyer delight only) for interpretation.
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