Weatherford Democrat

August 12, 2011

Wrapping up records

Margarita Venegas
Weatherford Democrat

WEATHERFORD — I hope you’ve been able to read my columns all week long about what types of public records are available, how much they’ll cost you to obtain and how to get help in finding them.

On Sunday, I’m going to put out an impassioned plea for the public’s help as we gear up for another public records audit.

The Democrat did it last year prior to July Fourth weekend, using our reporters. We sent them out to various government entities and asked for budgets, salary lists, police records, appraisal records, jail records and court records. We evaluated each entity on how fast, efficiently and nicely they were able to get us the records.

It’s time to do it again, only with real people.

The organizers of the Freedom of Information seminar I attended last Thursday not only encouraged an audit, but also encouraged newsrooms to pick a day each week to figure out what public records they wanted and needed to obtain.

I encourage you to do the same.

I realize it’s harder for a private resident to take time after work or whenever you can sandwich it in between carting the kids around to this or that place, however, we all have to work out the “public information” muscle to ensure our government officials don’t get complacent and lax in thinking they aren’t accountable to us.

To that end, there are some “down” sides. That is, not everything you want is a public record. Government produced records are assumed to be open unless they are specifically exempt.

There are 50 exemptions.

I thought about naming them, but, in typical government fashion, they are not only named, but many have addendums to clarify them. For example, negotiations of litigation between a city and the entity that is suing the city are not public record. But, once those issues are resolved, you can usually obtain the information through the city or court (say, if the city had to pay someone money — you can find that in their budget).

You can look online to find the Texas Public Information Law. It’s statute 552.

Subheads 552.101 to 552.151 outline all the items that are specifically NOT public record — and in what instances they are not public record.

Sometimes, however, the Attorney General’s office has ruled that although something is not specifically noted in the exemptions, it still may not be obtained. That doesn’t mean all records that are similar are forever banned, but it does mean you may have to be a junior lawyer and figure out how to argue that the record you’re trying to obtain should still be open.

Some of these exceptions are very general, too. For example, law enforcement can exempt information that may harm an investigation or make crime prevention difficult.

While law enforcement may argue that ANY information on a specific case could harm the investigation, those trying to obtain public records may argue that certain parts of that case can and should be released.

Wouldn’t you like to know if you live next door to someone whose child had accused him of sexual abuse? What if your child had gone over there for sleep overs? Would you like to know if you should ask your child if they’d ever had anything suspicious happen at that house?

Oh, I’m sorry, that information is part of a private matter that may ruin an investigation — or so we, here at the Democrat, have been told.

This is one reason we’ve started to up our dedication to public records.

We have to hold ourselves accountable for libel. We aren’t going to print anything that isn’t true. We aren’t in the business of being yet another salacious media organization.

But, when it comes to public records, we are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to make government open, honest and accountable.

I hope, you too, will join us in that fight.

— Margarita Venegas