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Zaffirini Hosts Discussion of Pandemic’s Effect on Open Government

- South Texas Senator, TAB Shine Light on Growing Concerns

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, hosted an hour-long webinar last week to explore the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on access to government information and meetings. The discussion came after seven months during which journalists and the general public have struggled to keep tabs on how taxpayer dollars are being spent by local and state government.

TAB, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association co-hosted the session which also addressed lingering problems of accessing government contract information.

A longtime advocate for Open Government, Zaffirini is one of the most tenured senators in the legislature and represents a 17-county district that stretches from Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley to Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Austin.

The contracting transparency challenges journalists revealed in the webinar are proving particularly frustrating to journalists who had hoped reforms enacted in the 2019 Legislature would fix access issues stemming from the 2015 Boeing v. Paxton court decision.

The special online discussion featured broadcast journalists Julie Fine of KXAS-TV Fort Worth, who moderated the session, and panelists Jaie Avila of WOAI-TV San Antonio, and Justin Gordon, chief of the Texas Attorney General’s Open Records Division.

“We’ve seen in this pandemic, that access to accurate information can actually have a life or death impact on the public,” Avila said.

He noted problems the public encountered when attempting to ascertain if a loved one’s nursing home had active COVID-19 cases, either involving residents or staff.

“Some families only found out, tragically, that the nursing home had multiple cases or deaths after their loved ones died.”

The State of Texas did not begin releasing such information until July, months after keeping the public in the dark, and well after several other states had released such information.

Avila went on to detail how a local school district is blocking his Texas Public Information Act requests for information on school operations, citing “skeleton crew” staffing issues.

Others attending the online discussion noted they had experienced the same problem with other school districts.

A law passed in the last legislative session does give local governments the ability to temporarily suspend portions of the Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act during an emergency by filing a catastrophe notice with the A.G.’s office.

Gordon noted that local governments cannot randomly decide, however, they are operating under a “skeleton crew” and ignore the Texas Public Information Act.

“It needs to be some type of official recognition by the governmental body itself,” Gordon said.

Strides were made in the 2019 Legislature to improve access to government contract information, namely the passage of a law (SB 494) by former St. Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, which made clear what types of government contract information are available and when such information can be withheld. 

In practice, however, that information can still be difficult to access.

Avila recounted his efforts to access details of a taxpayer-funded furniture purchase by CPS Energy for its new $212 million headquarters building.

The utility spent about $7 million for the furnishings, but it has yet to provide Avila information on what exactly it bought.

Instead, the utility forwarded Avila’s request to the A.G.’s office for review citing the Boeing decision as the reason the information should be withheld. 

CPS Energy said release of the furniture pricing information would put the furniture vendor at a competitive disadvantage.

The panel touched on a few other subjects with the last fifteen minutes of the session featuring Gordon answering a series of Open Government-related questions asked by attendees.

You can watch an archived recording on Sen. Zaffirini’s Facebook page.

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

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