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Featured: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, with his wife, Erica, on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, prior to the House District 40 state legislator addressing the Edinburg Rotary Club on various issues that affect his constituents.

Photograph By ALEX RÍOS

Texans deserve more power to know what their governments are doing, says Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who has formally asked Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to create a special House-Senate legislative panel to improve transparency and accountability to citizens. Canales, the House District 40 state lawmaker from Hidalgo County, during his career in the Texas Legislature has authored, sponsored, and voted for legislation designed to strengthen public knowledge about the actions of local and state governments, before, during, and after such efforts by those public entities take place. “I have a proven track record of fighting for open-government legislation during my five years as a state lawmaker, through carrying measures that bear my name, and through my work in House committees and on the floor of the House of Representatives, where I have always spoken in favor and voted for dozens of measures that protect the people’s right to know about what our local and state governments are doing in our name with our public resources,” said Canales. In general, open-government is a set of beliefs that all government business should be open to regulation and scrutiny by the public. The Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act are the two most powerful sets of laws in the state regarding public disclosure of actions of local and state governments. During the recently-concluded 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature, which was held from January through May 2017, Canales authored one of the few proposals dealing with open government and public information that became state law. As of September 1, 2017, as a result of Canales’ House Bill 214, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – the highest courts in the state – are required to dramatically improve the ability of the public to see what is going on in the two Austin-based powerful trial courts. “Recording and broadcasting courtroom proceedings can promote transparency and allow the public to evaluate the efficacy of the judicial system,” explained Canales. “To increase the public’s access to the judicial branch, H.B. 214 builds upon previous policies by requiring the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to make video recordings of their oral arguments, and any open meeting the courts have, and publish the recordings on their respective websites.” The Texas Supreme Court is the state’s highest court for civil matters, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the state’s highest court for criminal matters.  

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Rep. Canales supports creation of Texas legislative panel to improve governments’ transparency and accountability to citizens

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

Texans deserve more power to know what their governments are doing, says Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who has formally asked Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to create a special House-Senate legislative panel to improve transparency and accountability to citizens.

Canales, the House District 40 state lawmaker from Hidalgo County, during his career in the Texas Legislature has authored, sponsored, and voted for legislation designed to strengthen public knowledge about the actions of local and state governments, before, during, and after such efforts by those public entities take place.

“I have a proven track record of fighting for open-government legislation during my five years as a state lawmaker, through carrying measures that bear my name, and through my work in House committees and on the floor of the House of Representatives, where I have always spoken in favor and voted for dozens of measures that protect the people’s right to know about what our local and state governments are doing in our name with our public resources,” said Canales.

In general, open-government is a set of beliefs that all government business should be open to regulation and scrutiny by the public. The Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act are the two most powerful sets of laws in the state regarding public disclosure of actions of local and state governments.

During the recently-concluded 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature, which was held from January through May 2017, Canales authored one of the few proposals dealing with open government and public information that became state law.

As of September 1, 2017, as a result of Canales’ House Bill 214, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – the highest courts in the state – are required to dramatically improve the ability of the public to see what is going on in the two Austin-based powerful trial courts.

“Recording and broadcasting courtroom proceedings can promote transparency and allow the public to evaluate the efficacy of the judicial system,” explained Canales. “To increase the public’s access to the judicial branch, H.B. 214 builds upon previous policies by requiring the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to make video recordings of their oral arguments, and any open meeting the courts have, and publish the recordings on their respective websites.”

The Texas Supreme Court is the state’s highest court for civil matters, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the state’s highest court for criminal matters.

The Boeing bill and McAllen’s Enrique Iglesias contract

Canales’ dedication to open government in Texas continues on many other fronts, including his support for legislation during the 85th state legislative regular session which would have strengthened the Texas Public Information Act, which allows all Texans to access government documents.

That measure, Senate Bill 407, which would have fixed a loophole that made it more difficult for Texans to hold their government accountable, was defeated in the final days of the 85th Texas Legislature last spring, he said.

“In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court delivered a court ruling known as the Boeing ruling (Boeing v. Paxton), which resulted in shielding public access to many government contracts with private businesses. In some cases, it has become impossible to see how taxpayer money is spent on items such as contracted school services or even how much total money is spent on a contract, as in the case of singer Enrique Iglesias hired by the city of McAllen to perform at a holiday event,” Canales explained. 

Also last spring, other other bills aimed at restoring Texans’ right to know how their state and local governments spend money were blocked by Republicans, and likely can not be revived until 2019 – unless a special session is called, which is unlikely, by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

So Canales is calling on Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to appoint a special legislative panel to come up with the solutions through public hearings, so that such open-government measures can quickly be approved when state lawmakers return to the five-month regular session in 2019.

Canales opposes Agua Special Utility District’s $489,000 severance package 

According to Dave Hendricks with KGBT-TV CBS News/ValleyCentral.com:

“The Agua Special Utility District approved severance packages worth $489,000 for two high-profile administrators during July (2017) — and attempted to keep the agreements secret.Former Executive Director Oscar Cancino approved severance packages for La Joya school board President Oscar ‘Coach’ Salinas, the utility community relations coordinator, and La Joya school board Vice President Armin Garza, the utility project manager, on July 17 (2017). They walked away with six-figure checks: $221,000 for Salinas and $268,000 for Garza, according to documents released Thursday, November 2, 2017.”

Canales said some leaders of the Agua Special Utility District, a water utility district that collects local taxes in much of western Hidalgo County, “took a dim view of the Boeing v. Paxton argument,” Hendricks said.

“The fact that Agua has tried to expand the Boeing v. Paxton ruling to include their nefarious severance payments is not only a wild stretch of the imagination, it’s disheartening and shameful at best,” Canales said in a statement.”

House-Senate committee to examine open-government legislation

In the last few days last spring of the 85th Texas Legislature, Concurrent Resolution 56, authored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and sponsored by Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, was approved by the Texas Legislature and signed by the Governor, which requested that the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House create a joint interim committee to examine open-government laws.

Canales informed Straus that he would be willing to serve on that committee.

SCR 56 and Canales’ request to create and serve on the proposed House-Senate panel come following recent court actions – and inactions by the Texas Legislature – that Canales says have hurt open-government and open meetings laws in the state.

“Government transparency is a vital component of an informed citizenry, and it is incumbent on the State of Texas to ensure that the public have access to information regarding how their government functions in order to promote accountability, openness, and honesty,” states SCR 56. “Therefore the 85th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby request the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to create a joint interim committee to examine all state open-government laws, including the Texas Public Information Act, for opportunities to improve transparency and accountability.”

In his related request, Canales emphasized that he shared Straus’ goals of making it easer for, and to encourage, Texans to learn more about how their governments work in order to build public trust, and to hold their public officials accountable.

“There is still much that can be done to ensure that the public has access to information regarding how their government functions in order to promote openness and honesty,” the House District 40 lawmaker stated in his letter to Straus. “I respectfully request that the Speaker of the House create this interim committee on open-government, and also consider appointing me to the very same committee.”

A concurrent resolution, which can be introduced in the House or in the Senate, is a type of legislative measure that requires adoption by both chambers of the legislature and generally requires action by the governor. A concurrent resolution is used to convey the sentiment of the legislature and may offer a commendation, a memorial, a statement of congratulations, a welcome, or a request for action by another governmental entity.

“During the 85th Legislative Session, lawmakers and other stakeholders spent months collaborating on several bills to improve the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), with many proposals garnering broad support,” according to SCR 56. “Despite those efforts, significant reforms failed to pass, leaving TPIA still susceptible to a number of loopholes.”

Key open-government bills that deserve support

As a result, Canales voted for SCR 56, which calls for the following measures to be reviewed and supported by the the special House-Senate committee:

• Senate Bill 407 by Watson/Capriglione: Reverses the Boeing decision to ensure the public can access government contract;

• Senate Bill 408 by Watson/Capriglione: Reverses the Greater Houston Partnership decision, which currently allows private entities supported by public funds to operate in the dark;

• Senate Bill 1655 by Watson/Elkins: Specifies which disclosure exceptions can be raised by a governmental body that has violated the Texas Public Information Act’s procedures;

• House Bill 2670 by Hunter/Watson: Ensures governmental bodies may recover public information from their employees’ private devices;

• House Bill 2710 by Hunter/Watson: Restores a longstanding Texas Attorney General opinion that dates of birth cannot be withheld from otherwise public documents based solely on common law privacy; and

• House Bill 3848 by Hunter/Watson: Requires governmental bodies to respond to all Texas Public Information Act requests; ensures requestors can obtain public information on portable computer drives; and requires governmental bodies to list the specific exceptions that they think apply to a Texas Public Information Act request.

Watson, in late May 2017, offered this view of why open-government legislation had a tough time during the regular session of the 85th Texas Legislature.

“Legislation to ensure access to public information has drawn considerable bipartisan support in both chambers this session. But powerful special interests have been working to kill the bills because they would like to continue spending taxpayer dollars without any oversight from taxpayers,” Watson said.

These “special interests” kept the bills bottled up in the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee, the Austin state senator continued. “If Texans are to hold their public officials accountable, access to public information is essential. We can’t let the special interests who benefit from government dollars to dictate what we as taxpayers can see.”

Also according to SCR 56, the committee would “submit a full report, including its findings and recommendations, to the 86th Texas Legislature before it convenes in January 2019.”

Requiring school districts, cities and counties to broadcast meetings of their governing boards

Canales’ record of defending and promoting open-government laws in Texas also includes these measures:

The key public meetings of elected governmental bodies in the larger school districts, cities and counties in Texas, including many in the Valley, must be videotaped in their entirety and made available on the Internet under a state law coauthored by Canales, which went into effect on January 1, 2016.

“House Bill 283 improves transparency and access to our government leaders by ensuring that recordings of open meetings are now easily available to the people,” said Canales. “Many people do not have the available time to attend city council/commission, school board, and county commissioners court meetings because they are working, spending time with their families, or lack access to transportation.”

As finally approved by the Legislature during the spring of 2015 and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 17, 2015, HB 283 applies to “district board of trustees for a school district that has a student enrollment of 10,000 or more, an elected governing body of a home-rule municipality that has a population of 50,000 or more, or a county commissioners court for a county that has a population of 125,000”, according to the legislation.

Metropolitan rapid transit authorities, regional transportation authorities, and municipal transit departments also are covered by this law.

Supporting public’s right to know about drugs used in state executions

In 2015, House Bill 1587 authored by Canales would have required the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide details about the names of the drugs used in the lethal injections, along with the identity of their manufacturers, the expiration dates of the deadly concoction, the results of laboratory tests performed on those ingredients, and pertinent information relating to the toxic substance.

“In Texas, we do not give the bureaucrats the absolute authority to decide what the public can and cannot know about what their government is doing,” said Canales. “When it comes to the death penalty, Texans will not allow state government to keep secrets about this drug, which wields the power of life and death.”

HB 1578 was heard by the House Committee on Corrections in 2015, but did not receive a vote by the full House of Representatives before the regular session ended.

Requiring South Texas College to broadcast its full board of trustees meetings on the Internet

House Bill 2668, supported by Canales, requires the governing board of a junior college or community college, including South Texas College, with more than 20,000 students in any semester to broadcast its regularly scheduled meetings over the Internet.

House Bill 2668 went into effect on January 1, 2014.

Meeting agendas and supplemental materials would be posted online as early as practicable in advance. The board would record the broadcast and make the recording available in an online archive on the community college district’s website.

HB 2668 improves the transparency of the decision-making process at the state’s largest public junior colleges by requiring that their board meetings be broadcast online. Not only would these broadcasts help inform the public, but community college board members would be more accountable to the local electorate that selects them. Requiring them to conduct their business in front of a larger public audience would only improve the quality of a board’s governance.

Even though community colleges are largely creatures of local government, they do receive large amounts of state funding and it would be appropriate for the Legislature to promulgate good government and high standards for transparency. Further, the bill would not actually dictate the decisions made by community college boards. It only would require that the decision-making process be more open to stakeholders.

Improving the public’s access to government documents, protecting freedom of the press

In addition to filing legislation bearing his name that promotes open-government, Canales has demonstrated such support for dozens of other measures in the Texas Legislature since his first term in 2013.

He has voted for legislation during his legislative career, that, according to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, “strengthen the Texas Public Information Act as it covers private emails dealing with government business; make private college police records open to public view; and ensure that journalists can accurately report on serious allegations of public concern.”

Canales also voted for other important measures, including, according to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, “measures updating the Texas Public Information Act to include government communications on all electronic devices; allowing public access to written communications among members of an elected body outside of public meetings; and encouraging retractions in erroneous published or broadcast reports to minimize defamation lawsuits.” (http://foift.org/legislature/)

According to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) supported through grants and tax-deductible donations from individuals, corporations and foundations, and promotes the protection of the public’s right to know:

The Texas Public Information Act was originally known as the Texas Open Records Act, approved by the Legislature in 1973 in a reform atmosphere following the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal involving state officials. Spelled out in Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, the act states that “government is the servant and not the master of the people.”

Also according to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, the Texas Open Meetings Act is detailed in Chapter 551 of the Government Code. It states that governmental bodies must hold open meetings unless there is an authorized reason for a closed session, also known as an executive session.

TEXAS PUBLIC INFORMATION ACT

According to the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, key provisions of the Texas Public Information Act are as follows:

Covered Entities

The Texas Public Information Act applies to all governmental bodies, including all boards, commissions and committees created by the executive or legislative branch. It also may apply to a body that is supported by public funds or that spends public funds. Private organizations that hold records for governmental bodies also are covered. However, private individuals and businesses are not covered even though they supply goods or services through a government contract.

Types of Information

Public information refers to information collected, assembled, produced or maintained in the course of transacting public business. It may be on paper or film or in electronic communications such as emails, Internet postings, text messages or instant messages.

Exceptions

Some information is not open to the public. These types of information are listed as exceptions in the Texas Public Information Act. They include some information in personnel records, pending litigation, competitive bids, trade secrets, real estate deals and certain legal matters involving attorney-client privilege. Attorneys’ fees paid by a governmental body are generally public.

Law Enforcement

Generally, the front page of a police report is public. Records that would hinder the investigation or prosecution of a crime if they are released are exempt from disclosure.

The Judiciary

Information collected and maintained by the judiciary is not covered by the Texas Public Information Act. That information is governed by public access rules set by the Texas Supreme Court and other applicable rules and laws.

Making a Request

Filing a request under the Texas Public Information Act is as simple as asking the government agency in writing for the desired information. The request can be made through a letter or via email or fax. It does not need to contain any particular language, but it’s important to be clear. Try to be specific. This will help produce the information that is sought and can eliminate the need later for narrowing down a request that is too broad. The governmental body is not allowed to ask why the information is being requested.

Charges

A governmental body or agency can charge for copies of the information, but the fee must be reasonable and cannot be used to discourage someone from asking for information. The requester is entitled to an itemized bill if the charge is more than $40. A governmental entity can also waive copying charges. For more information, see the Texas Cost Rules tab in the Resources section of our website. To avoid charges, the requester can ask to view the records in person on the premises of the governmental body.

Withholding Information

Public information is supposed to be released “promptly.” There is a misconception that a governmental body or agency has 10 days to release information. The 10-day mark is the deadline for a governmental body, if it contends the information is not public, to ask for an attorney general’s decision allowing it to withhold the records. (Texas’ open records law is stronger than those in many other states in that if a governmental entity wants to withhold information, it has to ask the attorney general for permission to do so.) After a ruling is sought, the attorney general then decides within 45 days. The person making the original request can also offer written comments to the attorney general. If a governmental body fails to seek an attorney general decision in time, the information is presumed to be public.

Appealing an Open Records Decision

When the attorney general’s office agrees with a governmental body that information can be withheld from the public, the person making the original request has the option of filing a lawsuit in state district court to attempt to have the information released.
 
TEXAS OPEN MEETINGS ACT

According to the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, key provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act are as follows:

Covered Entities

Governing boards, commissions, agencies and other bodies created within the executive and legislative branches of government are subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act. Commissioners courts, city councils, school boards and certain nonprofit corporations providing public services or spending taxpayer money are among the entities covered. Certain property owners’ associations also are subject to the law.

Quorum

A quorum refers to a majority of members of a governing body, unless a quorum is defined differently by an applicable law or rule or charter of the body. A quorum must be present for the body to take action.

Posting of Notice

The governmental body must give the public notice of the date, time, place and subject of an upcoming meeting. The notice must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times at least 72 hours before the meeting. In case of an emergency or “urgent public necessity,” a meeting notice or addition to a meeting agenda may be posted at least two hours prior to the meeting. The governmental body must clearly identify the emergency.

Other Exceptions to Posting Law

Boards or commissions with statewide jurisdiction must have their meeting notice posted on the Internet by the secretary of state at least seven days before a meeting. Committees of the Texas Legislature are not subject to the meeting notice rules above. Their rules are set by the Texas House and Senate.

Closed Sessions

Closed, or executive, sessions may be held by a governmental body in certain situations. Executive sessions are permitted when a body is meeting with its attorney on litigation or a settlement offer; deliberating personnel matters; deliberating the purchase or lease of property; discussing certain financial contract negotiations; or discussing deployment of security devices. Several other exceptions to open meetings are also contained in the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Deliberations Between Meetings

Under a new provision of the act that took effect Sept. 1, 2013, members of a governing body are allowed to communicate with one another about public business between meetings if they do so in writing and on a publicly accessible online message board. The message board must be prominently displayed and easy for the public to find on the government entity’s website. Officials may not take action on the message board. That must wait for a posted meeting.

Video Conferencing

The Texas Open Meetings Act now allows for members of a governmental body to attend a public meeting via a video conference call. The head of the board or commission must be physically present in the designated meeting place and the public must be given access to that meeting space. The public must be able to witness the comments and actions of those officials attending the meeting remotely via audio and video equipment and be able to participate via the videoconferencing just as they would at a traditional public meeting.

ABOUT THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FOUNDATION OF TEXAS

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas works to encourage a greater appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the First Amendment and helps to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public. Since its formation in 1978, the Foundation has helped citizens access government meetings and documents.

The Foundation seeks to inform journalists, legal professionals, educators, students, public officials and individual citizens about their rights and responsibilities as participants in our democracy. With the clear objective to protect and preserve the state’s open meetings and open records laws, the non-partisan Foundation acts as a statewide information clearinghouse and offers guidance and assistance on FOI-related issues through a network of attorneys and through public seminars and conferences. FOIFT is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) supported through grants and tax-deductible donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.

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Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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