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FEATURED: Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo/Starr County, addresses students, staff and facility at Texas A&M International University–Laredo on Friday, December 7, 2018. For her work on transparency in government during the 87th Texas Legislature in 2021, Zaffirini on Tuesday, October 5, 2021, was honored at her Capitol office as a Champion of Transparency by the Texas Press Association.

Photograph Courtesy TEXAS A&M INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY–LAREDO

FEATURED: Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo/Starr County, addresses students, staff and facility at Texas A&M International University–Laredo on Friday, December 7, 2018. For her work on transparency in government during the 87th Texas Legislature in 2021, Zaffirini on Tuesday, October 5, 2021, was honored at her Capitol office as a Champion of Transparency by the Texas Press Association.

Photograph Courtesy TEXAS A&M INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY–LAREDO

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Texas Press Association names Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo/Starr County, as a Champion of Transparency, reports attorney Omar Ochoa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

The Texas Press Association has named Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo/Starr County, as a Champion of Transparency for her leadership in promoting open government and accountability during the 2021 Regular Session of the Texas Legislature, reports attorney Omar Ochoa.

According to its website, the Texas Press Association “promotes the welfare of Texas newspapers, encourages higher standards of journalism, and plays an important role in protecting the public’s right to know as an advocate of First Amendment liberties.”

https://www.texaspress.com/about

“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,” according to Ballotpedia, Ochoa said.

https://ballotpedia.org/Government_transparency

“I am proud to say that all of our Valley state representatives and senators are strong and effective champions for open government at all levels of government in Texas,” Ochoa added.

https://omarochoalaw.com

The award was presented to Zaffirini at her Capitol office on Tuesday, October 5, 2021, by Donnis Baggett, Executive Vice President, and Mike Hodges, Executive Director, of the Texas Press Association.

“I am delighted to receive this prestigious award recognizing our collaboration on open government issues,” Zaffirini said. “Transparency is essential to preserving democratic governance. Texans need to know what happens in the halls of power to hold their leaders accountable.”

Zaffirini has authored and supported open government bills throughout her career.

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

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.

Zaffirini filed eight bills during the 87th Texas Legislature, which was held from Tuesday, January 12, 2021, through Monday, May 31, 2021, to reform the state’s open government laws, specifically the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act.

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

The Texas Public Information Act provides a mechanism for citizens to inspect or copy government records. It also provides that governmental bodies may withhold government records from the public in specific instances.

https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open-government/members-public/overview-public-information-act

The Texas Open Meetings Act provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in Texas. The law also entitles a person to have easy access to a notice of those meetings.

More information about the Texas Open Meetings Act is available online at:

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

One of those transparency bills by Zaffirini – Senate Bill 930 – was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott and went into effect on Wednesday, September 1, 2021.

Senate Bill 930 provides 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 and the number of residents diagnosed are not confidential. They are subject to disclosure by state agencies or local health authorities under the Texas Public Information Act.

“Sen. Zaffirini is a staunch defender of the public’s right to know,” said Donnis Baggett, Executive Vice President, Texas Press Association. “She worked tirelessly and effectively to pass important legislation allowing Texans access to information on rates of infectious disease cases in individual health care facilities.”

“This was much more than a news media issue,” Baggett further said of Senate Bill 930. “Without that information during the worst days of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to make an informed choice about long-term care for a loved one. That is no longer the case, thanks to Sen. Zaffirini.”

Zaffirini recalled that when the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, she and her staff began receiving reports that family members were being denied access to information about the safety of nursing homes where their loved ones resided.

“I can only imagine the anxieties those families felt,” she said. “As we looked into it, we found that advocates and journalists also were being denied access to information by state and local government officials. That’s why I decided to address the issue by filing my Senate Bill 930.”

However, one of the senator’s other open government proposals – Senate Bill 925 – did not survive the legislative process.

Senate Bill 925, authored by Zaffirini, had addressed some of the state’s most pressing and emergent transparency issues.

By defining “business day” in Texas Public Information Act, for example, Senate Bill 925 sought to close a loophole that allows some entities to avoid public information requests permanently by claiming every day as a “skeleton crew” day, which currently are not considered business days.

“We’ll try again in 2023,” she said, “and will file a new any transparency bills that weren’t passed this year.”

Other bills, which also did not make it into state law, would have created 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 and protect the public’s right to participate in open meetings held via teleconference or videoconference.

Residents of Zaffirini’s Senate District 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.

NEWSPAPERS COME OUT “OK IN MESSY LEGISLATIVE SESSION,” SAYS DONNIS BAGGETT, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, TEXAS PRESS ASSOCIATION

In an analysis of the 87th Texas Legislature’s Regular Session held from Tuesday, January 12, 2021, through Monday, May 31, 2021, newspapers in the state came out “OK in a messy legislative session,” according to Dennis Baggett, Executive Vice President, Texas Press Association.

“It was an underwhelming legislative session — not only because of the trash talk, partisan bickering, and walkouts but because of weather and health crises that were delivered by Mother Nature and made messier by the masked-up members of mankind,” Baggett announced in an analysis of key measures act upon by state lawmakers.”

When the smoke cleared, however, the 2021 session of the Texas Legislature that ended with so much public business left undone was a positive one for the Texas newspaper industry, he found.

The legislative examination by Baggett also included his additional observations:

About mid-session, it became clear that the 87th Texas Legislature would be a success for newspapers if two key developments occurred:

• Protecting public notices. Under Texas law, public notices are advertisements placed in newspapers by the government, businesses, and individuals. They include government contracts, foreclosures, etc. There were a half-dozen bills files to eliminate public notices outright and more than another dozen that would reduce the public notice requirements.

http://njdhs.com/social-media-communications-as-public-notice-is-it-appropriate/

• Passing Zaffirini’s Senate Bill 930 – which indeed became state law – which provided 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 and the number of residents diagnosed are not confidential.

Both goals were achieved by the Texas Press Association.

Restricting Catastrophe Notices

“We also helped pass a bill to stop government entities from filing one catastrophe notice after another so they can avoid dealing with open records requests,” Baggett said.

Senate Bill 1225, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, updated the law to clear up how governmental bodies can use the “catastrophe notice” provision of the Texas Public Information Act.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, and Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, served as sponsors of Senate Bill 1225.

A sponsor is a legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber.

The Senate Research Center provides quality, specialized, objective research and information to the Texas Senate and the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.

A bill analysis by the Senate Research Center of Senate Bill 1225 provided key information about that measure:

In the past, catastrophes, natural disasters, and other similar emergencies rendered it difficult or impossible for impacted governmental bodies to timely respond to Texas Public Information Act requests, either due to emergency work related to the catastrophe or, in some cases, because government offices were closed due to inaccessibility or damage.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the catastrophe notice provision of the Texas Public Information Act was rarely used. However, when pandemic-related closures began in March 2020, dozens of governmental bodies across Texas filed catastrophe notices. Certain governmental bodies abused the temporary suspension process, requesting multiple, consecutive catastrophe notices.

This allowed for roadblocks to information at a time when Texans most needed to ask questions and obtain information. While a temporary suspension of responding to Texas Public Information requests may be necessary during a disaster, overuse of the catastrophe notice provision is not consistent with the spirit of the law.

https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/87R/analysis/html/SB01225F.htm

“So by the limited expectations we had for 2021, it was a good session,” said Baggett.

Public Notices

Newspapers also succeeded regarding state requirements for public notices, he added.

Public notices are advertisements placed in newspapers by the government, businesses and individuals. They include government contracts, foreclosures, unclaimed property, public hearings, bids, financial reports, community information, and other activities legally requiring public notice.

“They call for posting pubic notices on government websites as an alternative to newspaper publication,” Baggett explained. “These bill are filed by up-and-coming, young state representatives who say they don’t read print newspapers – at least not the print editions.”

He claimed that “virtually all of the state lawmakers” who file bills to do away with public notices in the print versions of newspapers in Texas “have either a negative relationship with a newspaper or no relationship at all. These legislators were urged to file the anti-newspaper bills by government officials in their district.”

Baggett suggested a bill be filed in the 88th Texas Legislature, which begins its 140-day regular session in mid-January 2023, to adopt a new state law to keep the current requirement of advertising in the print editions of newspapers, and also require those public notices be be posted – for an additional fee – on the Texas Press Association’s statewide public notice website.

The digital availability of newspaper notices on the Texas Press Association’s public notices website would be accessible at no cost to anyone to use it.

“A number of other states already have similar laws in place, and have helped keep the anti-newspapers dogs at bay in those states,” he emphasized.

https://www.texaspress.com/public-notices

Baggett also criticized unnamed lawmakers in the Texas Senate for killing “much-needed transparency bills…after meeting resounding (enormous) support in the House (of Representatives).”

Among those House bills that died in the Senate were:

House Bill 1416, by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Keller, would put an end to ignoring public information requests on the grounds that the government is working with a “skeleton crew”.

House Bill 1416 would have defined “business day” for the purposes of the Texas Public Information Act to mean a day other than a Saturday or Sunday or a national or state holiday under state law governing holidays for state employees.

The House Research Organization is a nonpartisan independent department of the Texas House of Representatives. It provides impartial information on legislation (bills) and issues before the Texas Legislature. The House Research Organization is governed by a broadly representative steering committee of 15 House members elected by the House membership to set policy for the organization, approve its budget, and ensure that its reports are objective.

A bill analysis by the House Research Organization for House Bill 1416 is available online at:

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

House Bill 1810, by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Keller, would have made public records available in whatever searchable/sortable program in which they were filed.

House Bill 1810 would have specified that a governmental body’s use of an electronic record-keeping system could not erode the public’s right of access to public information. The contents of electronic public information would be significant and not used merely as a tool for the maintenance, manipulation, or protection of property.

A bill analysis by the House Research Organization for House Bill 1810 is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba87r/hb1810.pdf#navpanes=0

House Bill 2683, by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, would have provided rules for conducting remote governmental meetings in ways accessible to the public.

House Bill 2683 would have 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.

A bill analysis by the House Research Organization for House Bill 2683 is available online at:

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

House Bill 3015, by Rep. Ana Hernández, D-Houston, would have required a governmental entity to respond in some fashion to a Public Information Request, even when the governmental entity is refusing to release the requested materials.

House Bill 3015 would have required the public information officer of a governmental body that determined it had no information responsive to a public information request to notify the requestor in writing within 10 days after the request was received.

A bill analysis by the House Research Organization for House Bill 2683 is available online at:

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

“The Texas Press Association and other members of the Transparent and Accountable Government Coalition will try again to pass those bills in 2023,” Baggett said. “In the meantime, we’ll do what we always do during the interim: work to foster relationships between legislators and newspapers.”

The interim is the period between legislative sessions.

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

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