Texas — just like the federal government — has laws that dictate most government records are to be open to the public for viewing.
However, like anything else in life, what you’re dealing with is real people, so the laws laid out in Texas Government Code 552 may not always be clearly defined or easily interpreted.
Just as you may be good at your job, so, too, may be a public employee. And, just as you don’t want to be questioned constantly, so, too, may a public employee. Asking for public records can make a public employee feel as if you’re trying to dig into something that you wouldn’t understand — after all, they do this job all the time and you don’t. Or, it may just be a hassle for them to have to take time out of their busy day to dig through records.
There are the occasional times when they are trying to hide something.
In the 16 years I’ve worked as a journalist, I’ve found it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. When someone is hiding something, it’s just like catching anyone else in a lie. There’s confusion, there’s excuses, there’s delays.
That’s why if you decide to go after some public records, you need to be on your game and have as full of an understanding of the law as possible — and it doesn’t hurt to have some help.
The first stop in trying to obtain public records is to identify who should give them to you — for a city this is likely the city clerk, for a law enforcement agency this is usually their records clerk.
Pleasantly asking for the records and working with the clerk to achieve an understanding of what you want may often result in you obtaining the record for free — especially if it’s something that can easily be emailed to you or copied to a CD.
If you have to write a written request, then this is where you’ll usually first see signs of misunderstanding. The state public records law says that government entities have up to 10 days to decide if they want to petition the Attorney General’s office for a ruling.
Often, governments will seize on that 10-day time frame to say, “Oh, I don’t have to answer your record for 10 days.”
State law says they have to answer it “promptly.” The 10 days ONLY pertains to if they feel there’s a question about if this record is public and should they petition the AG’s office for an opinion.
The double-edged sword is that “promptly” may be more than 10 days if the record is really old.
If they still aren’t working with you or if they decide they are going to appeal your request to the Attorney General’s office, then you have every right — and you should do this — to file an appeal of your own. Visit the Attorney General’s website at www.oag.state.tx.us or call their toll-free hotline at 877-673-6839 to find out where to send your appeal. Keep in mind the AG’s office, while they may be helpful for some things, is still a government agency and they tend to side with government entities a fair amount of the time. The AG’s website does have an archive of past opinions, which if you have the time, you should browse to get an idea of how they rule.
Another excellent source if the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Visit them at http://foift.org or call 512-377-1575. Their website has a lot of resources for journalists and has columns that are, at times, very liberal-sounding (but are focused on keeping records open). However, they do have a good tutorial/walk through of the Texas public records and open meetings statutes, because if you try to read it on your own, well, unless you’re a lawyer, it’s difficult to understand. In order to access the FOI handbook (where you can find these tutorials), you have to enter your email address.
Finally, a very good source with readily available information on the state and some local levels is the Texas Tribune. Visit www.texastribune.org. Yes, they do have some liberally-biased columns. However, they also have searchable databases with salaries, legislative voting records, information on higher education and so much more. It’s all dispersed throughout the website, so when you have a few free moments you can search through it — but you’ll probably never get done. The Tribune is a nonprofit dedicated to highlighting public records and often partners with media to bring public records to light. Their staff may be able to help if you’re in a real pinch and need some guidance as to what to do next. There’s a “Contact Us” box on their website which you can use to send them questions.
— Margarita Venegas