Some helpful suggestions for obtaining public information from Juan Elizondo, managing editor of the Longview News-Journal and treasurer for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
1. Don’t ask, but sometimes do tell
There’s no debating that government agencies — schools, appraisal districts, cities, counties — cannot ask why a person wants information and people who ask for information are not required to tell. That said, sometimes it pays to tell why you want something because the government officials might be able to help you ask for the right records or help you avoid a formal public information request.
2. Avoid formal requests when you can
I have tremendous respect for people who practice law. The fact is, though, that once you file a formal public information request, it becomes a legal matter. That often means it will take longer to get the information you want, particularly if you can just ask for access to see some records.
3. Don’t let ‘em take too long
There’s tremendous misunderstanding of what the Texas law requires in terms of government agencies responding to public information requests. The law absolutely does not say they have 10 days to respond. In fact, it says government agencies must respond promptly. That means if the report you want is sitting unused on someone’s desk, they’ve got to make it available immediately. Government agencies do have up to 10 business days — if needed — to produce copies, to make the information available or to say they are not going to make information available.
4. Make sure they go to the Attorney General
If an agency refuses to release information for which there’s been no specific court or AG ruling, it must go to the attorney general — by that 10-day deadline — to get the AG’s input. Agencies that fail to go to the attorney general by that 10th day automatically lose any rights they had to withhold information (they often end up going to court to fight to keep that right even though they blew the deadline).
5. Draft ‘smaft’
Too often government agencies still try the old “draft” dodge, saying a report or proposal is just a draft. If a document has gone from one agency department to another — say from the mayor’s office to the public works department — it’s a public record. The person who uses that information should take care to note that the information was contained in a draft, but the draft status does not automatically mean the record cannot be made public.
6. Council ‘smouncil’
The Public Information Act does not give a city council, school board or any other governing board the right to see public information before the public does. Period.
7. Don’t pay too much
Government agencies have the right to recover their costs for producing copies or making information available. They are not required to charge and they are allowed to waive costs if making the information available would benefit the public. Ask for itemized cost estimates in advance and consider getting access to, not copies of, records. It’s cheaper to take notes of what you want and to make copies of only the exact pages you need.
8. Know your rights
The Public Information Act is online at www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/GV/htm/GV.552.htm. It’s not that hard to read. The Attorney General’s Office has a primer on the law at www.oag.state.tx.us/open/index.shtml. And the Freedom of Information Foundation has an open records hotline at (800) 580-6651. Have a pencil ready when you call because you’ll be given phone numbers for the on-call lawyers, who provide information only on open government issues. It costs money to provide that free service, so consider joining the FOIFT or giving a regular donation via foift.org.
Source: Longview News-Journal