Sunshine Week: Taking a stand against public information blackouts

Shining light on our government through public information helps us ask questions of elected officials – and hold them accountable.
Sunshine Week, taking place March 10-16, recognizes the importance of open government and educates Americans about their right to public information. It’s not an abstract notion. It’s about what’s happening in the real world.
You may be checking on the safety of roads and bridges in your community. Or wanting to know how your school board is spending taxpayer money. Perhaps there’s concern about pollution or water quality in your neighborhood.
In each of these scenarios, the Texas Public Information Act, one of our state’s main government transparency laws, allows us to request government records, get answers and demand action. The act presumes records are open unless there’s a specific exemption in the law. This places power in the hands of the people, and rightly so.
What can block the way, though, is a government ignoring or stalling an information request, which defies the law’s mandate to provide records “promptly,” meaning as soon as possible “without delay.”
Government’s failure to respond results in an information blackout.
In most cases, a government agency in Texas cannot decide on its own to withhold records and must ask permission to do so from the attorney general’s office, which rules on whether the law allows it.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming more common for governments to abuse or overuse the attorney general ruling process; to charge outrageously high prices for producing documents; or to simply flout the public records law.
Since the May 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, the Uvalde Leader-News has made multiple records requests related to the tragedy. Among other roadblocks it has encountered, the newspaper has yet to receive the total compensation amounts paid to Uvalde school district administrators who were terminated or resigned after the shooting.
Other examples abound. A city in the Rio Grande Valley never replied to repeated requests for city manager applications until The Monitor newspaper reported the non-responsiveness. City officials finally said there weren’t any applications. In San Antonio, bird enthusiasts complain they have not received all the city records they requested related to tactics used to remove migratory birds from a local park.
Craig Garnett, the Leader-News publisher, wrote in one of his columns that government entities have “learned to play word games with open records requests, to assert that they have no such records in their possession or simply lie about what they have turned over.” He added: “They do so because there are absolutely no consequences for them to do otherwise.”
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and other members of the diverse Texas Sunshine Coalition have urged the state Legislature to close loopholes in the Public Information Act and add enforcement measures to the law.
Although many public officials understand they are the custodians of the people’s records and are committed to carrying out the letter and spirit of the Public Information Act, others must be pushed in that direction.
The Texas Public Information Act, now 50 years old, states that the act shall be construed in favor of granting a request for information and that “government is the servant and not the master of the people.”
Without the free flow of information, the people are in the dark. We need plenty of sunlight to ensure our government is answerable to us.
Kelley Shannon is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit organization based in Austin that advocates for open government and free speech.

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