Texas public records belong to the people

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The public has a right to government records

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If it wasn’t for access to public records, none of us would know how widespread concussions are among our young student athletes and how we might better prevent them.

We would be in the dark about which places are still storing dangerous chemicals like the ones that blew up in West, killing 15 people in 2013.

We wouldn’t know nearly as much about the horrible mess that is Child Protective Services right now.

The Texas Public Information Act protects citizens’ rights to see these records, created by their governmental bodies using their tax dollars. It’s alarming that this state is going in the wrong direction on releasing them. More and more, school boards, cities and agencies are denying access to these records.

That’s bad for Texans. These are our records. Access to them can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

Texas used to be an example in transparency for the rest of the nation. Not anymore.

Dallas Morning News reporter Terri Langford found that the number of entities denying requests for public information is growing at an alarming rate.

At the end of August 2001, governments sent 5,000 denied requests to the attorney general for review, which is often required after a denial. By 2016, that number had jumped to 27,000. That’s a 440 percent increase and shows no sign of slowing. (No statewide data exists on the total number of requests made.)

Just as troubling is that local governments and agencies have gotten permission from the attorney general to automatically deny certain requests. The prevailing attitude seems to be to withhold information rather than to give it — even information that was once routinely released.

How are citizens supposed to hold officials and our governments accountable?

Attorney Paul Watler says the training agencies get on how to comply with the law has, unfortunately, also alerted them to ways to circumvent the law. But agencies should start with the default position that they should grant requests, not deny them.

 

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