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Quintero: Don’t let pandemic (or the freeze) cloud Sunshine Week

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James Quintero

Video from a Jan. 5 officer-involved shooting won’t be made public until April, the Austin police say, because on top of everything else, it got cold in Texas in February.

According to a police statement, “due to recent city of Austin weather-related closures, APD will not be releasing the video during the initial 60-day timeframe.”

Last year was a bad one for the Texas Public Information Act and other government accountability (“sunshine”) laws. And 2021 isn’t starting off so well, either. Numerous government agencies cited the pandemic as an excuse to delay public information requests.

Some used — or misused — a law that was passed in 2019 intended to give governmental agencies a little more time to respond to open records requests in the event of a true natural disaster, such as Hurricane Harvey.

But the Texas Press Association, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and others worried that law might be abused and testified against the bill in a committee hearing. As the FOIF’s Kelley Shannon points out, “The law gave too much leeway to governments.”

Yet the principle behind our sunshine laws is as important now as it ever has been — and even more so.

“Where are COVID-19 clusters occurring?” Shannon asked in a recent blog post. “Are elderly loved ones safe? What’s the latest on COVID testing and vaccine distribution? How are taxpayer dollars being spent on pandemic aid in our communities? The Texas Public Information Act is supposed to help us answer these questions of life and death and following the money. But in many cases, governments are using the pandemic itself to ignore them.”

The opening preamble of the public information act states, in part: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” That’s about as clear and direct as anything you’ll read in the Texas Government Code.

And yet, the public information act in principle bears little resemblance to the law in practice. Today’s transparency tool is a rather dull and sometimes ineffective version of what it aspires to be.

But we can strengthen it. The Texas Public Policy Foundation and a diverse group of organizations ranging from the ACLU-Texas and Americans for Prosperity to East Texas’ own Grassroots America have come together to form the Transparent & Accountable Government Coalition.

“Mistrust of government is at an all-time high, and the TAG Coalition believes that the way to regain trust is through transparency and accountability,” we say in our Mission Statement. “The people have a right to know how public officials are conducting business and how tax dollars are spent.”

Our agenda for the current legislative session has three parts. We must clarify what delays are allowable in responding to open records requests during an emergency. We can retain flexibility for government agencies during such an emergency, but we must ensure that this flexibility is not abused and accountability is maintained.

We support legislation that will ensure public officials know to respond to open records requests. And we must make sure that governments don’t cite remote work and virtual meetings as an excuse to deny access to information or prevent the citizens of Texas from participating in their government.

On March 18, TPPF will host a livestream event titled “Regaining Trust in Government,” with state Rep. Gio Capriglione, Kelley Shannon from the FOIF of Texas and Donnis Baggett of the Texas Press Association. It will last from noon until 1 p.m. and can be viewed at www.texaspolicy.com/events/.

Sunshine Week lasts March 14 through 20.

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— James Quintero is the Policy Director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Government for the People campaign.

Today's Bible verse

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus."

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

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