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June 4 Teleconference on Government Transparency During the Pandemic

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, a longtime lawmaker and friend of Texas Open Government advocates, is hosting an early June teleconference to discuss governmental transparency issues the public and newsrooms have encountered during the coronavirus pandemic.

The online session, Government Transparency in the Age of a Pandemic, will take place June 4 at 2 pm. Log in details will soon be emailed to Texas newsrooms.

Hunter will be joined by St. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-South Lake, the House sponsor of last year’s crucial update to the Texas Public Information Act, as well as other panelists including TAB President Oscar Rodriguez and Michael Schneider, TAB’s V.P. for Legislative and Regulatory Affairs.

While the group will discuss recent examples of how local governments have thwarted citizens’ and newsrooms’ efforts to monitor governmental actions and spending during the pandemic, other FOI issues can also be raised.

Texas newsrooms have encountered Open Records access problems in four areas this year:

  • Lack of transparency of which nursing homes are experiencing COVID-19 infections/deaths
    While the State of Texas is releasing the number of patients and staff infected by the coronavirus (and Covid-19 deaths), it has to date not released the names of any of nursing home facilities affected. The information is public in many other states, but the state agency involved has asked the Texas Attorney General’s office to rule on release of the information. Texans with a loved one in a nursing home are in the dark when it comes to knowing if that nursing home is affected.
  • Continuous extensions (abuse) using SB 494, a 2019 law regarding application of the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act in emergencies
    A bill from the last session, SB 494 by St. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, allows local government to suspend compliance with certain aspects of the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act during an ongoing emergency such as a pandemic.  It was meant to allow a temporary suspension, but several jurisdictions have suspended compliance repeatedly since the shutdown occurred. 
  • Lack of urgency for governmental entities to process public information requests
    Claiming they are incapable of accessing certain types of information remotely, government employees have been lax about responding to Texas Public Information Act requests. If they can operate remotely, as many have been doing, there really isn’t a reason why requests cannot be satisfied electronically. The public understands that current conditions do not necessarily allow requestors to review materials in person.
  • Continued abuse of the Texas Public Information Act as it relates to government contracts
    Some newsrooms have run into continued access problems in routine requests for government contract information. This was mostly addressed by SB 943, a 2019 bill by former St. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. TAB is aware, however, of at least one city that is providing third-party contract vendors suggestions on how to assert to prevent routine information from being released.  Taxpayers should know how their money is being spent and government employees shouldn’t be helping vendors thwart the release of that information.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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