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Open government roadblocks – what to do about an Open Meetings/Open Records impasse

It happens with regularity – a call to TAB from a member station newsroom that has encountered a public meeting from which it has, seemingly, been barred or a Texas Public Information Act request that has met a roadblock.

TAB’s advice to newsrooms?

Know the law and utilize the power of public shaming.

One can easily learn about the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) and the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA).

TAB’s annual Southwest Broadcast Newsroom Workshop always features sessions on utilizing these laws to generate stories and how to overcome recalcitrant local and state government intent on non-release of information or keeping a camera out of a public meeting.

TAB’s Newsroom Legal Guide, prepared by our general counsel Jackson Walker LLP, is a fine resource on both laws and is available in the Members section of the TAB website.

TAB’s Member station Legal Hotline is also available when such difficulties arise by calling 512-322-9944.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office has a general Open Government page on which you can download its Public Information Handbook which is continually updated based on actions of lawmakers in each legislative session.

Stations can also utilize the A.G.’s toll-free Open Government Hotline at 1-877-OPEN TEX (1-877-673-6839).

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has helpful Open Government pages as well.

Recently, TAB received an anxious phone call from a metro broadcast newsroom which had been advised that its cameras would not be allowed inside an open meeting of a local school board.

Jackson Walker attorney Stacy Allen, who handled the inquiry as part of TAB’s Legal Hotline, cited the Texas Open Meetings Act which unquestioningly applies to meetings of public school board:

TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 551.023 of the Texas Open Meeting Act permits members of the public to record open meetings with a recorder or a video camera:

(a) A person in attendance may record all or any part of an open meeting of a governmental body by means of a recorder, video camera, or other means of aural or visual reproduction.

(b) A governmental body may adopt reasonable rules to maintain order at a meeting, including rules relating to:

(1) the location of recording equipment; and

(2) the manner in which the recording is conducted.

(c) A rule adopted under Subsection (b) may not prevent or unreasonably impair a person from exercising a right granted under Subsection (a).

Allen said the law is clear that “any member of the public may make a video recording of the meeting (which most certainly includes the press)”.

TAB also fields calls on a regular basis related to TPIA requests for information stymied by public employees.

Sometimes it’s a delaying tactic being utilized by local government such as a “request for clarification” which automatically will reset the response time of 10 business days.

Other times it is an astronomical cost quote meant to discourage the request for information.

The Attorney General’s Office can assist with the TPIA cost rules and are open to intervening when it appears a cost estimate is meant to scare off the request.

Stations can call the toll-free cost hotline at (888) 672-6787.

TAB often counsels stations which have encountered a TPIA roadblock, to take the story public.

The Poynter Institute agrees and recently posted a good piece on its website which highlighted the benefits of “public shaming” local government when encountering a public information impasse.

Among Poynter article’s tips for such stories:

  • Know the law. Know what you are entitled to and when.
  • Be persistent, be specific, and be polite.
  • If you encounter a significant roadblock, let the audience experience the frustration a newsroom has encountered in getting the information.  Tell THAT story and why the information is important for the public to have.
  • Screen grabs of government response emails or letters, especially galling ones, can be most effective in greasing release of information.

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

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