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“Skeleton Crew” Issue Continues to Be a Problem for Texas Newsrooms’ TPIA Requests

A Texas Public Information Act loophole not addressed by lawmakers in the recent regular legislative session continues to thwart newsrooms’ efforts to access taxpayer-funded records.

TAB and other members of the Transparency and Accountability in Government Coalition, such as the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association, were able to pass two of the eight Open Government fixes the coalition sought in the session.

Almost all the rest of the measures overwhelming passed the Texas House, only to die in the Senate in the waning weeks the 87th Texas Legislature.

Among those was HB 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, a bill that clearly defined what constitutes a “business day” so as to prevent the abuse of the “skeleton crew” loophole in the tolling of 10 business days in which governmental bodies must respond to Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) requests.

Governmental bodies are sometimes short staffed, hence a “skeleton crew,” due to holiday or a short-term emergency of some kind such as a hurricane’s impact on office operations for a week.

This practice is allowed by the TPIA, but it has been abused during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when governmental bodies’ staff have worked mostly from home.

Public employees remain on a public payroll, and in most cases, the records and information they use to perform their functions is available remotely, yet local governments claim the lack of people in the physical office prevents them from responding to TPIA requests for information.
With more and more businesses returning to in-office operations in June, newsrooms expected the situation to improve, but the abuse continues.

In the past two weeks, there were examples of the skeleton crew provision’s abuse in the Rio Grande  Valley and El Paso.

Sadly, the prospects of addressing this issue in the special session of the Legislature that starts Thursday appear, at best, dim.

The coalition was able to pass another bill, SB 1225 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, that defines the conditions of a “catastrophe” in relation to suspension of the TPIA and how many days a catastrophe notice and extension can remain in effect.

It does not, however, address the issue of being temporarily short-staffed for a few days.

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


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