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Rep. Canales’ plan would guarantee Texans could use landline or cell phones to easily access, and participate in, governmental body public meetings that take place using virtual video technology - Titans of the Texas Legislature

FEATURED, FROM LEFT: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Fern McClaugherty of Edinburg, representing the government watchdog group known as O.W.L.S. (Objective Watchers of the Legal System); Rep. R.D. Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen; and Sen. Juan Chuy” Hinojosa. They were participating in a news conference on Monday, January 27, 2020, at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance to educate the public about Canales’ House Bill 2840, approved by the Texas Legislature in May 2019. House Bill 284019 increased the publics right to address leaders of most governments regarding any item scheduled on the agenda for discussion and possible action.  https://edinburgpolitics.com/2019/06/12/governor-signs-bill-by-rep-canales-that-gives-texans-powerful-new-rights-during-public-comment-portions-of-open-meetings-affecting-scores-of-local-governments/#more-3943

Photograph By CURTIS SMITH

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Rep. Canales’ plan would guarantee Texans could use landline or cell phones to easily access, and participate in, governmental body public meetings that take place using virtual video technology

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

A basic landline telephone or a mobile cell phone would be all a person would need to hear –  and even participate in – governmental body public meetings of elected and appointed leaders in Texas when they use virtual video technologies for live broadcasts and videotaped sessions, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, has proposed.

According to the Office of the Texas Attorney General, a virtual meeting of a governmental body occurs when at least one of the members of the governing board participates in a public meeting through videoconferencing technologies such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype, and Amazon Cloud.

https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/sites/default/files/files/divisions/open-government/conference/12-10ConductingVirtualMeetings.pdf

House Bill 2683 would provide a revolutionary requirement that the public would have the right, during such virtual governmental body public meetings, to call into the live session of the governing body to express their positions or provide information on any of the issues posted on the agenda as they come up for discussion and possible action.

“Not everyone has access to, or can afford, high-speed Internet or cable television, in order to see the live virtual meetings of their school board, city council/commission, county court, and other important meetings of their governing bodies,” said Canales, who is the author of House Bill 2683.

As the author of House Bill 2683, Canales is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author).

“But most people have a phone, and my House Bill 2683 would dramatically make it easier for more people, wherever they are, to know what is going on, or went on when they conduct their meetings using virtual technology,” added the House District 40 state lawmaker. “This is important especially for people who don’t have expensive cell phones that can receive video from such virtual public meetings.”

House Bill 2683 is set for a public hearing on Thursday, March 25, 2021, before the House Committee on State Affairs at the Texas Capitol.

A committee is a group of legislators appointed by the presiding officer of the House of Representatives or the Senate to which proposed legislation is referred or a specific task is assigned.

Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, is the only Rio Grande Valley lawmaker who is a member of that legislative panel.

To view that meeting live or recorded, interested individuals beginning at 8 a.m. on Thursday, March 25, 2021, should log on to: 

https://house.texas.gov/video-audio/ , 

then scroll to, and click the link titled  “State Affairs”.

Since there are numerous and complex House bills which will be heard that day by the House Committee on State Affairs, interested individuals also may call Canales’ office in Austin at 512/463-0426 to find out whether Canales has already made his presentation before that legislative panel and what happened, or what time during that day does his staff estimate the committee will hear from Canales on House Bill 2683.

A bill is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by both chambers (House of Representatives and Senate) 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.

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

https://tlc.texas.gov/docs/legref/Glossary.pdf

If approved by the Texas Legislature and not vetoed by the governor, House Bill 2683 would become state law on Wednesday, September 1, 2021.

Canales said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed an identical measure – Senate Bill 924 – which he strongly supports.

“Sometimes, a senator and a state representative introduce identical bills in order to increase the chance that one of those measures survives the legislative process, which is designed to kill bills, even the best of them,” he explained. “On something this important, which would increase the people’s right to know about what government leaders – including, in many cases, appointed officials – are doing, we want to take as few risks as possible.”

The Texas Open Meetings Act is detailed inChapter 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.

Some of the key proposed changes to the Texas Open Meetings Act in Canales’ and Zaffirini’s identical bills that deal with the use of the telephone by Texas residents during a virtual meeting of a governmental public  include:

A  governmental body:

• Shall ensure that members of the public are able to listen to and, if applicable, speak at an open meeting by telephone. The word “Shall” means the governmental bodies have no choice but to follow the new state law;
• Shall provide public access to both audiovisual and audio-only feeds of the open meeting over the Internet;
• Shall allow members of the public to address by telephone the governmental body as provided by Section 551.007;
• Shall provide a toll-free telephone number that members of the public may use to hear and speak at the meeting;
• Shall include instruction for a member of the public to speak at the meeting;
• Shall include access information for any audiovisual or audio-only feeds; and
• Shall require that the audio recording of the live meeting be made available to the public not later than 24 hours after the meeting is completed.

Canales said the idea was brought to the Texas Legislature by a new and powerful legislative lobbying group, known as the Transparent and Accountable Government Coalition, which is made up of 20 diverse organizations to raise awareness about transparency laws and to support reforms in the 2021 legislative session.

According to Ballotpedia, transparency laws are those which require openness, accountability, and honesty of government.  In a free society, transparency is the government’s obligation to share information with citizens. Information on how officials conduct the public business and spend taxpayers’ money must be readily available and easily understood.

https://ballotpedia.org/Government_transparency

The organization which is part of the Transparent and Accountable Coalition are, in alphabetical order:

• American Civil Liberties Union, Texas;
• Americans for Prosperity, Texas;
• Common Cause;
• Every Texan;
• Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas;
• Grassroots America/We The People;
• Institute For Justice;
• League of Women Voters of Texas;
• Public Citizen;
• PublicData.com;
• San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists;
• Society of Professional Journalists, Fort Worth Pro Chapter;
• Texas Appleseed;
• Texas Association of Broadcasters;
• Texas Association of Licensed Investigators;
• Texas Press Association;
• Texas Public Policy Foundation;
• TDS Telecommunications LLC;
• The Calabria Foundation; and
• TURF

TEXAS GOVERNMENTS HAVE CURTAILED PUBLIC INFORMATION IN PANDEMIC. LAWMAKERS NEED TO ACT

By Kelley Shannon
Executive Director
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas

Bold steps nearly 50 years ago created landmark protection for the people’s right to know in Texas.

Lawmakers approved the state’s open records law, now known as the Texas Public Information Act. 

Born out of a political-financial scandal, the intent behind the law was to allow citizens to hold public officials accountable.

For the most part, this Texas transparency law has served us well.

It’s essential in many Texans’ routine interactions with their government as they request police reports, school budget documents and so much more. It has been used to expose government action – or inaction –after hurricanes and floods and in turbulent economic times.

Now, amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Public Information Act is having another pivotal moment as Texans try to keep an eye on the government during a pandemic.

Where are COVID-19 clusters occurring? Are our elderly loved ones safe? What’s the latest on COVID testing and vaccine distribution? How are taxpayer dollars being spent on pandemic aid in our communities?

The Texas Public Information Act is supposed to help us answer these questions of life and death and follow the money. But in many cases, governments are using the pandemic itself to ignore information requests.

Some government offices closed their doors to the public to prevent the spread of the virus and, citing guidance from the attorney general’s office, declared that days on which physical offices are closed don’t count as the business days that governments have to respond to Public Information Act requests. 

That’s even if government employees are getting paid to work remotely with electronic access to records.

This obstruction could go on indefinitely. It’s an outdated approach when much of the work world is operating remotely via email and Zoom meetings.

Clearly, there’s a flaw in the interpretation of the law. And it can be repaired.

Today’s state legislators, like their predecessors a half-century ago, have the chance to take their own historic stand to safeguard the free flow of information for years to come.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and 19 other diverse organizations have formed the Transparent and Accountable Government Coalition to raise awareness about transparency laws and to support reforms in the 2021 legislative session. Some of these issues already existed, but the pandemic magnified them.

In addition to Public Information Act updates, the virtual meetings provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act needs lawmakers’ attention. We must ensure fair rules for public participation in online government meetings, including a required phone call-in line for those without Internet access.

State law also should clarify that the locations of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are public information. The TAG Coalition is working on these measures and several other open government bills, such as one calling for posting more government contracts online.

Lawmakers in both political parties are interested in working together to protect and expand public information access. It’s a continuous job to make sure that Texas laws keep pace with modern times and that governments adhere to the letter and the spirit of our transparency laws.

This pandemic era presents the opportunity to take yet another step on that honorable path.

For more information, go to http://www.foift.org.

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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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