If you’ve seen news reports on suspicious state contracts or chemical waste pits or officials’ text messages in the Waco biker shootout, you may notice a recurring theme: Government records obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.
Fortunately, our state’s public information law, created in the early 1970s, presumes government records are open unless a specific exemption in the law keeps the documents off limits.
The public has a right to know. That means all citizens — not only journalists — can access government records.
“It’s very easy,” said award-winning reporter Melissa Correa of KRGV-TV in Weslaco, recently explaining her use of the information law.
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She carries printed sections of the law with her and requests items like government audits, receipt books and salaries. “Every time a Public Information Act request comes back, it’s like Christmas,” she says.
Anyone can do the same and hold their elected officials accountable.
When using the Texas Public Information Act, which applies to state and local government records, know your rights and keep these tips in mind:
▪ Check to see if the information is online. Some government agencies post frequently requested information on their websites. It makes the records easily available and reduces staff time needed to fulfill individual requests.
A government agency can direct a public records requester to its website if the information is there. But the requester can also ask for a different electronic format or paper documents.
▪ Submit your request in writing. This triggers the act and the timely response required of the government. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas website www.foift.org provides a sample letter, but no special wording is needed.
▪ Be specific. Keep your request as narrow as possible. This lets the public records official know exactly what you are looking for and saves time.
A government official cannot ask you why you want the information but can, in good faith, ask you to clarify your request if it’s overly broad or vague.
If you choose to clarify, it resets the response timeline, but it can help you obtain the records faster in the long run.
▪ Know the deadlines. Information is to be provided as soon as possible without delay. If it cannot be provided within 10 business days, the government agency must certify that in writing and set a release date within a reasonable time period.
If the agency wants to try to withhold records, it must notify the Texas Attorney General’s Office within 10 business days, seeking such a ruling. The attorney general has up to 45 business days to issue a decision.
▪ Follow up. If you don’t receive information or a timely notification about an attorney general ruling request, ask the government agency what’s up.
If necessary, you can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. Once information is made available, if it needs to be retrieved or examined in person, do it right away.
▪ Be aware of cost rules. Government entities may charge to recoup certain costs incurred in collecting and producing information. Allowable charges are spelled out by the Attorney General’s Office.
A summary of cost rules is on the FOI Foundation website. Instead of receiving copies of the material, you can usually view it in person for free.
▪ Use helpful resources. Along with resources listed on its website, the FOI Foundation offers a free hotline at 1-800-580-6651. Volunteer attorneys answer questions about the Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act.
Remember that many government employees are themselves open government advocates who understand they are the custodians — not the owners — of our records. Be polite, assert your rights and make good use of your public information.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, based in Austin. Star-Telegram Editorial Director Mike Norman is a member of the foundation’s board of directors.