A look at the Texas Public Information Act
Published January 2, 2011It’s something of a New Year’s tradition for us to outline the law guaranteeing what is perhaps the most basic right of every citizen of Texas: the right to know what your governments are up to.
The Texas Public Information Act outlines what you can and can’t expect from your school board, city council and other governing bodies.
Why get into all that now?
The new year is a time of reflection. Many people resolve to make the world a little bit better.
That doesn’t take a magic wand. In a democracy, things get better when individual people become better citizens. Good citizens get involved.
They expect more from their representatives who have signed on to educate children, pave roads and provide running water.
Good citizens look for the good — maybe even the excellent — rather than the adequate.
That energy comes, at least partly, from information.
Unless you know what those who govern on your behalf are doing, you can’t possibly hope to make improvements.
We think the Texas Public Information Act is key to making governments work for people. We offer this primer on how the law works.
Who Does The Law Apply To?
It applies to all government bodies. That includes all boards, commissions and committees created by the executive or legislative branch.
It also applies to any body that is supported — to any extent — by public funds or that spends public funds.
Private organizations that hold records for governmental bodies also fall under the law. Before the law was amended in 1989, it seemed that virtually every record in Texas was being held by a private consulting firm and couldn’t be disclosed. The law was repealed in 1993 and replaced by Section 552 of the Texas Government Code.
What’s The General Policy?
The law says that, in general, each person is entitled at all times to complete information about the affairs of government.
Are There Things I’m Not Entitled To See?
There are a few basic exceptions:
• Pending litigation;
• Competitive bids;
• Real estate, meaning the site or price of property; and
• Some legal matters — generally, matters that fall within attorney-client privilege. However, attorneys’ fees are generally public.
What About Law-enforcement Records?
Only those records that hinder prosecution are exempt. In general, the front page of a police report is public.
How Do I Make My Request?
If you ask for the records, the government may require you to put the request in writing. Here’s the form many newspapers use: “This request is made under the Texas Public Information Act, Section 552 of the Texas Government Code. In accordance with the law, which requires that the ‘Officer for Public Records shall promptly produce such information for inspection or duplication, or both, in the offices of the governmental body,’ I respectfully request access to the following information: …”
What Happens After I Have Requested The Records?
Many people, including some in government, still think the government then has 10 days to provide you with the information.
That’s not what the law says. What the law says is that “an officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication or both on application by any person to the officer.”
“Promptly” means within a reasonable amount of time. If you request a ton of information, you could have to wait awhile. If you ask to inspect a public record that is on file in a public office, you generally should be able to see the record immediately.
The confusion about the 10-day rule comes from this provision in the law: If a government thinks the record you requested is not open to the public, it has 10 days to seek an attorney general’s opinion. If it fails to do so, the record is presumed to be public.
What Does The Government Have To Do With The Request?
Basically, it must show you the records or request an attorney general’s opinion stating the records can be withheld. If the government fails to request an attorney general’s opinion within 10 days, the records are presumed to be public.
The government can ask you to clarify your request, but it must make a good-faith effort to relate the request to information it holds.
The government must treat all requests for information uniformly without regard to the position or occupation of the requester.
There’s one exception: There’s no obligation to send material to someone in jail or prison.
Can The Government Ask Me Why I Want The Information?
Can The Government Charge For Copies?
Yes, but the courts have ruled that governments can’t use fees as a means of discouraging people from asking for information. If the charge for copies is more than $40, you’re entitled to an itemized bill.
And here’s the best part: If the government decides that releasing the information is in the public’s interest, it can waive fees.
What The Law Says
“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.
“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 people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”