Nov 20th 2015 | Posted in State by Peter Partheymuller

State ranks near bottom in access to information, ethics disclosure

texas_scorecard2

The Center for Public Integrity, a national government watchdog, last week released a report ranking the 50 states on transparency, accountability and ethics. Texas did not fare well, ranking 38th overall with a grade of D- and 48th in terms of the public’s access to information.

That kind of national ranking does not come as a complete surprise, though. House Speaker Joe Straus included the issue among the list of interim charges he announced last week. In delivering his more than 150 charges to the House of Representatives, Straus said, “The next legislative session is more than a year away, but the work of that session starts now.”

Straus noted that, though the topics he asked the House members to study “cover a wide variety of issues,” they focus on “core priorities” for the state and its residents. Prominent among those core priorities were government transparency and accountability.

In his directions specifically to members of the Committee on Government Transparency & Operation, Straus asked the representatives to “consider any reforms to state agencies to make them more responsive to Texas taxpayers and citizens” and to “determine whether an agency is operating in a transparent and efficient manner.”

The committee is chaired by state Rep. Gary Elkins of Houston. “This issue has been on my radar for a while,” he said. Elkins expressed surprise at the low opinion some have of the state’s responsiveness to open records requests. “But this period between legislative sessions will allow us to look into the concerns that anyone has about how state agencies respond to requests. I’m looking forward to gathering more information on it from all interested parties during my interim hearings,” he said.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas advocates for government transparency and open access to public information. Its executive director, Kelley Shannon, said that her organization works every legislative session to strengthen the law and, as important, to block exceptions to the law. “We’re always vigilant about that,” she said. “It’s really a matter of outreach … to citizens, yes, but also to the legislators themselves, who may not be completely aware of the unintended consequences of a bill.”

Shannon stressed that problems with the issue can often come as a result of the discrepancy between how the law is written versus how it’s enforced. “Texas actually has a strong public information act,” she said. But, in practice, it’s not always enforced to its fullest extent. Another problem can be in how that enforcement differs depending on the agency or employee providing the information. “If the person carrying out the request wants to follow the spirit of the law, then you get a good response. But, if the person carrying out the request isn’t as concerned with following the spirit of the law, that’s where you run into these issues.”

Constituent complaints and allegations of lack of government transparency are made not only toward various state agencies; they also crop up in cities and counties throughout the state.

At the beginning of this month, an activist named Brian Rodgers received a $5,000 settlement from the city of Austin as a result of a lawsuit he filed during the summer. Rodgers had filed requests for information regarding three controversial topics for the city and claimed to have gotten little or no response in return. Only after he filed suit did the city turn over records regarding the 2014 light rail election in Austin. Lawyers for the city then argued that the lawsuit was moot because the city had provided the records.

“We should never have had to file it,” Rodgers attorney Bill Aleshire said after the settlement was announced. “No one should have to go to this much trouble to get records from the city of Austin.”

The issue is often seen as a problem for grassroots activists like Rodgers or for members of the media, but its reach can be pervasive. Many private companies do business with government agencies and need to obtain information about a project, and many report that they too meet similar intransigence.

Shannon, of the Freedom of Information Foundation, admitted that it can sometimes be a matter of a lack of resources. Large municipalities and state agencies receive a lot of requests and often simply don’t have the bandwidth to process them in a timely matter. But, that’s no excuse, she said. “They perhaps need more resources,” she said. “But many of these requests can be processed quickly and easily electronically.”

As well, Shannon offered one suggestion that would enable public agencies to preempt the whole issue of public information requests. “The more information an entity can put up online, the fewer requests they’re going to get. It’s all public information, anyway. It belongs to us.”

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