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Dewhurst continues Senate Committee on Open Government, names Ellis chair

In a move that has delighted Open Government forces, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has extended the life of the Senate on Open Government into the 2013-2014 Legislature.

Some had feared that the committee would be disbanded after Chairman Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, leaves office in January.

In signaling the continuance, Dewhurst named Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, chairman of the committee.

Ellis has served on the committee since its inception in 2011.                                                             

He had been chair of the Senate Committee on Government Organization until late last week when Dewhurst reshuffled committee chairs.

In his proclamation, Dewhurst noted that the Committee on Open Government would “work on rewriting appropriate sections of the Open Government laws and increase transparency in state government operations in this age of modern communications.”

Ellis is a longtime Open Government advocate and was the Senate author of two recently enacted laws championed by TAB which benefit Texas newsrooms – the 2009 Texas Shield Law and 2011 anti-SLAPP statute.

While Chairman, Sen. Wentworth scheduled a Nov. 26 hearing to address interim charges.

It is unclear if that date will change.

In the interim charges issued by Dewhurst, the committee is tasked with evaluating the need for revisions to the Texas Public Information Act to address changes in the performance of public functions and make recommendations for changes.

Specifically, it must consider the use of new technologies and future technological advances as relates to the creation of public information; the extent to which the TPIA impacts third-party contractors with state and local government; and, the need to codify or clarify existing Attorney General opinions.

The committee has not met sooner this year as Wentworth was involved in a contentious primary battle to save his seat which he ultimately lost.

In other interim charges the committee must examine the effectiveness of security measures used to protect electronic information held by the state agencies and make recommendations for enhancing security, if needed.

In a move long pushed for by Open Government advocates, the committee was also asked to review record retention policies for state and local governments and make recommendations for improvements to record retention schedules and policies, including e-mail retention and archiving requirements.

The committee will consider the benefits and disadvantages of creating a uniform record retention policy.

Wentworth had asked Dewhurst for a charge to study ways to define and address “frivolous and/or overly-burdensome” TPIA requests.

This charge was to include an analysis of appropriate cost recovery by governmental entities for expenses and time related to responding to requests, while ensuring the public has adequate access to public information.

Like all other committees considering interim charges, the committee will review implementation of legislation addressed by the committee when it met during the last Legislature and its subsequent special session.

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