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Sen. Zaffirini files bills to reform Texas open government laws, reports attorney Omar Ochoa - Titans of the Texas Legislature

FEATURED: Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, whose Senate District 21 includes Starr County, on Saturday, November 7, 2020, signs a Senate resolution on behalf of Central Texas Families for Safe Streets (CTFSS), which serves as a resource for individuals and families who have been affected through loss and suffering from traffic violence involving a motor vehicle. CTFSS’s mission is to promote alternative and safe transportation options through policy and legislation, advocacy, community outreach, and empowerment.

Photograph Courtesy SEN. ZAFFIRINI FACEBOOK

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Sen. Zaffirini files bills to reform Texas open government laws reports attorney Omar Ochoa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Rio Grande Valley state lawmakers have a long and proven history of protecting freedom of speech, open government, and freedom of the press in Texas, and during the ongoing 140-day regular session of the 87th Texas Legislature, they will once more be champions of the people’s right to know, says attorney Omar Ochoa.

“For decades, we in the Valley and in Texas have been blessed by state lawmakers who truly believe in the guiding principles of our state open government laws, which state that ‘government is the servant and not the master of the people’”, Ochoa reflected. “‘The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,’ the Texas Public Information Act so powerfully states.”

According to the Office of the Texas Attorney General, there are two major state laws that are the foundation of transparency in all government entities:

• The Public Information Act (PIA) provides a mechanism for citizens to inspect or copy government records, be they at the local or state level. It also provides that governmental bodies may withhold government documents under certain conditions; and

• The Texas Open Meetings Act is an act in Chapter 551 of the Government Code whereby meetings held by governmental bodies in the state of Texas, be they at the state or local level, must be open to the public. It also provides that certain issues may be discussed behind closed doors, in what is called “executive session”.

On Tuesday, March 2, 2021, one of those Valley state legislators – Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, whose Senate District 21 includes all of Starr County – announced the filing of a series of bills aimed at improving transparency in government, including reforming open meetings and public information laws, Ochoa noted.

The word “file” is used to refer to a measure that has been introduced into the legislative process and given a number.

A bill is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by both chambers of the legislature and action by the governor in order to become effective. A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state. “Bill” types include Senate and House bills, Senate and House Joint Resolutions, Senate and House concurrent resolutions, and Senate and House resolutions.

Laura Félix, who is in charge of communications for Zaffirini, issued the following news release about those bills, of which Zaffirini is the author. 

An author is a legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). 

Félix’ news article follows:

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a series of bills Tuesday (March 2) to reform the state’s open government laws, specifically the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) and Texas Public Information Act. Seven proposals were filed as Senate Bills (SB) 924-930 and also were combined into an omnibus bill, Senate Bill 923, captioned “relating to open government.” 

“Transparency is essential to preserving democratic governance,” Zaffirini said. “Texans need to know what happens in the halls of power to hold their leaders accountable. I’m delighted to champion not only these proposals but also the cause of open government generally.” 

The senator’s proposals would address some of the state’s most pressing and emergent transparency issues. By defining “business day” in the Texas Public Information Act, for example, Senate Bill 925 would close a loophole that has allowed some entities to avoid public information requests permanently by claiming every day as a “skeleton crew” day, which currently is not considered a business day. 

Three of her bills would create a complaint mechanism at the Office of the Attorney General for requestors to report government bodies that fail to respond to Texas Public Information Act requests (Senate Bill 927), ensure that disease outbreaks at nursing homes can be reported as public information (Senate Bill 930), and protect the public’s right to participate in open meetings held via teleconference or videoconference (Senate Bill 924), respectively. 

Zaffirini has authored and supported open government legislation throughout her career. Her interest in these specific reforms, however, stems from a discussion during a Zoom webinar she hosted in October 2020 titled, “Government Transparency During Emergencies.” The co-sponsors for that webinar, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, the Texas Association of Broadcasters, and the Texas Press Association, developed these proposals. 

Kelley Shannon, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said government transparency cannot be sidelined amid the state’s many other pressing needs. 

“The pandemic has magnified problems that were occurring in our Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act,” Shannon said. “Loopholes in these important laws need to be closed so that all Texans can stay informed and fully participate in our democracy. This package of legislation by Senator Zaffirini will get Texas on course again in protecting the public’s right to know.” 

“The more complicated our government becomes, the greater the potential damage of poor stewardship or outright abuse—and the greater the need for transparency,” Zaffirini added. “This is especially true during emergencies, whether they’re winter storms, pandemics, or even recessions. The public’s right to the truth never changes, but its need for it is never greater than during times of crisis.” 

More information about these and other proposals is available via https://capitol.texas.gov/Home.aspx

Residents of Senate 21 or other interested Texans are encouraged to contact the senator via 512/463-0121 or [email protected] to share their own experiences or to provide greater insight. 

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. 

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) supported through grants and tax-deductible donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.

https://foift.org

According to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, these are the highlights of the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act:

THE TEXAS PUBLIC INFORMATION ACT

The Texas Public Information Actwas 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 inChapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, the act states that “government is the servant and not the master of the people.”

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,” the law states.

Some 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.

THE TEXAS OPEN MEETINGS ACT

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.

Key provisions of the 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 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 videoconferencing just as they would at a traditional public meeting.

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For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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