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Transparency bills by Sen. Zaffirini, Rep. Canales, and Rep. Guerra advancing in the Legislature, reports attorney Omar Ochoa - Titans of the Texas Legislature

FEATURED: Edinburg City Attorney Omar Ochoa, at podium, fields questions from the audience at Edinburg City Hall on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, during a press conference hosted by the Edinburg City Council – including from left, Mayor Richard Molina and then-Councilmember Gilbert Enríquez featured in the background –  to explain the local impact of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-34, issued earlier that day, regarding COVID-19-related operating limits for any businesses or other establishments in Texas.

Photograph Courtesy CITY OF EDINBURG FACEBOOK

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Transparency bills by Sen. Zaffirini, Rep. Canales, and Rep. Guerra advancing in the Legislature, reports attorney Omar Ochoa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Government transparency bills, including Senate Bill 930 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. House Bill 2683 by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D – McAllen, continue to move forward in the Texas Legislature, reports attorney Omar Ochoa.

Openness, accountability, and honesty define government transparency. In a free society, transparency is the government’s obligation to share information with citizens. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.

https://ballotpedia.org/Government_transparency

“Once more, Rio Grande Valley legislators are helping lead the way in proposing, supporting, and voting for major legislation that helps protect the people’s right to know about what their governments are doing  – before, during, and after they meet and act on those issues – to affect, inform, benefit, and safeguard Texans,” Ochoa said. 

Senate Bill 930, authored by Zaffirini, was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. Her measure is now awaiting action by the House of Representatives.

According to the bill analysis of Senate Bill 930 would make it clear that, unless made confidential under other law, the name or location of a nursing home or similar facility in which residents have been diagnosed with a communicable disease – such as COVID-19 – and the number of residents diagnosed would not confidential and is subject to disclosure by state agencies or local health authorities under the Texas Public Information Act.

A bill analysis is a document prepared for all bills and joint resolutions reported out of committee. A bill analysis may include background information on the measure, a statement of purpose or intent, and an analysis of the content of the measure.

The bill analysis for Senate Bill 930 is available online at:

https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/87R/analysis/html/SB00930S.htm

Texas Government Code, Chapter 552, gives anyone the right to access government records; and an officer for public information and the officer’s agent may not ask why they want them. All government information is presumed to be available to the public. Certain exceptions may apply to the disclosure of the information. Governmental bodies shall promptly release requested information that is not confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision, or information for which an exception to disclosure has not been sought.

https://comptroller.texas.gov/about/policies/open-records/public-information-act.php

House Bill 2683, authored by Canales, won unanimous approval in the Texas House of Representatives on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

House Bill 2683 also features Guerra as a joint author.

House Bill 2683 would create public access, notice, accessibility, and other requirements for remote or partially remote meetings of a governmental body subject to the statutory requirements for open meetings. The bill also would add notice and broadcasting requirements for open meetings.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, governmental agencies in Texas were able to conduct remote meetings online due to a temporary suspension of the requirement for government officials to be physically present at a meeting location. However, not all governmental agencies provided adequate public access to meetings conducted remotely. House Bill 2683 would remedy this by requiring the public be able to access and, if applicable, speak during open meetings conducted remotely, requiring the broadcast and archival of certain open meetings, as well as expanding meeting notice requirements.

The bill analysis for House Bill 2683 is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba87r/hb2683.pdf#navpanes=0

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

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

In the House of Representatives, a joint author is a member authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.

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

Kelley Shannon, Executive Director, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, on Thursday, April 22, 2021, provided a summary of a number of government transparency bills viewed as being high priorities of that non-profit organization.

“With just a few weeks remaining for lawmakers to act, it’s time for open government supporters across Texas to let legislators know they support these proposals,” Shannon said. “Let’s remind our elected officials how crucial transparency is to government accountability, and that’s important to us all.”

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.

https://foift.org

Regarding Senate Bill 930, as of Wednesday, May 5, 2021: 

“Zaffirini’s bill, including a key provision added from similar legislation by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, ensures nursing home residents and their loved ones can get the information they need about communicable disease outbreaks such as COVID-19,”  Shannon said. “A House version of the bill, House Bill 3306, by Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, was approved in committee, and is awaiting action by the House of Representatives.”

Donnis Baggett, Executive Vice President, Texas Press Association, has publicly supported Zaffirini’s proposal.

“The Texas Press Association strongly supports Senate Bill 930, which would assure Texans’ right to information about the transmission rate of communicable disease in long-term care facilities. Texans with loved ones in these facilities have been continually frustrated in our attempts to learn how many cases of COVID have been experienced in our loved ones’ facilities,” he said. 

Access to such information is essential for those of us who make life-or-death decisions on behalf of our loved ones with dementia,” continued. “It is also essential for journalists who report on these issues on behalf of the public. We do not seek access to patient-specific information, but only for aggregate information about the frequency of cases. Without it, we must make life-or-death decisions for our loved ones in an information vacuum.”

As for House Bill 2683 by Canales/Guerra, as of Wednesday, May 5, 2021:

“It addresses online meetings allowed under the Texas Open Meetings Act. Though the virtual meetings provision of the law worked well for many governments during the COVID-19 pandemic, in some cases rules for public comment were unfairly imposed and telephone call-in lines were not provided to accommodate those without Internet,” Shannon said. “House Bill 2683 corrects those problems. It is now awaiting action by the Senate.”

The Texas Open Meetings Act helps make governmental decision-making accessible to the public. It requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, except for expressly authorized closed sessions, and to be preceded by public notice of the time, place, and subject matter of the meeting.

https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/sites/default/files/files/divisions/open-government/openmeetings_hb.pdf

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.

Zaffirini’s Senate Bill 930 and Canales/Guerra’s House Bill 2683 are among the bills being backed by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, the Texas Press Association, the Texas Association of Broadcasters, and other members of the Transparent and Accountable Government Coalition.

As of Wednesday, May 5, 2021, other government transparency bills being closely watched by those organizations include:

• House Bill 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, was approved by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Canales is a Joint Author of House Bill 1416.

House Bill 1416 defines business days under the Public Information Act to ensure timely responses to public records requests. Throughout the pandemic, a number of government offices have not responded to requestors, citing the physical closure of their offices or because they were operating on a “skeleton crew” with staffers working remotely. However, many records today are available electronically, meaning they likely can be accessed remotely. The bill is awaiting action by the Senate.

The bill analysis for House Bill 1416 is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba87r/hb1416.pdf#navpanes=0

• House Bill 3627by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, makes it clear that existing law pertaining to “catastrophe notices” that governments can file to briefly suspend Texas Public Information Act responses during a disaster. 

Catastrophic events such as hurricanes and tornados can make it difficult for impacted governmental bodies to timely respond to public information requests as these events can disrupt the ability of employees to work and shut down government offices. As a result, state law allows governmental bodies impacted by a catastrophe to temporarily suspend the requirements of state public information law until the impact of the catastrophe is no longer such that the public information requests cannot be responded to.

This legislation adds specifics to the law to prevent abuse. It was approved by the House Committee on State Affairs and is now moving to the full House of Representatives. 

The bill analysis for House Bill 3627 is available online at:

https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/87R/analysis/html/HB03627H.htm

Senate Bill 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, is the identical bill in the Senate and recently had a public hearing in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

• House Bill 3015 by Rep. Ana Hernández, D-Houston, was approved by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, and is heading to the Senate for their action.

House Bill 3015 would promote government transparency and accountability by encouraging prompt compliance and timely responses by governmental bodies to requests for public information.

Enforcement measures in House Bill 3015 require governments to respond to public records requestors even if no responsive documents are found so that requestors remain informed. It also calls for additional training if public officials aren’t following the public information law.

The bill analysis for House Bill 3105 is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba87r/hb3015.pdf#navpanes=0

• House Bill 3535 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, was approved by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, and now heads to the Senate for their action.

House Bill 3535 would reopen access to dates of birth in public records. Birthdates help ensure accuracy and aid citizens in vetting a candidate for office; journalists identifying a person in a crime report; and banks, car loan companies, credit report firms, and employers relying on public record background checks to conduct business. 

Dates of birth in public records mostly have been closed off since the 2015 Third Court of Appeals ruling in Paxton v. City of Dallas. The ruling expanded on a prior Texas Supreme Court ruling in which dates of birth in public employees’ personnel files were declared confidential and ruled that dates of birth of public citizens are also protected under common-law privacy.

The bill analysis for House Bill 3535 is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba87r/hb3535.pdf#navpanes=0

• House Bill 1810by Capriglione was approved by the House State Affairs Committee and is headed to the full House. It provides access to searchable-sortable records, meaning that when government information is stored in spreadsheets or other electronic formats that can be searched and sorted a requestor has the right to ask for and obtain the records in that format.

Despite attorney general rulings indicating that governmental entities should produce documents in response to public information requests in the form in which they are kept, some governmental entities distribute records as unsearchable images or PDFs, making it difficult to search and sort information. 

Additionally, some governmental entities have refused to provide the field codes or data dictionaries needed to understand or interpret data in the format in which it is provided. House Bill 1810 seeks to update state public information law to provide for the maintenance and production of electronic public information in a searchable and sortable format, such as an Excel spreadsheet if the information is maintained in that manner and that is how the requestors wish to receive the information.

The bill analysis for House Bill 1810 is available online at:

https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/87R/analysis/html/HB01810H.htm

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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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