An Open Government Seminar, offered by the Office of the Texas Attorney General and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, will take place on Thursday, June 9, 2016, from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, 1200 Ash Avenue, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, has announced.
“Access to public records gives our citizens the opportunity to participate in public life, help set priorities, and hold their governments accountable. A free flow of information can be an important tool for building trust between a government and its citizens. Public access to our government’s work is a fundamental human right,” said Canales. “Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately.”
The event, which is open to the public, features two presentations in the morning by a representative from the Office of the Texas Attorney General, who will focus on the Texas Public Information Act, which is a series of laws which have been approved by the Texas Legislature since 1973.
According the the Office of the Texas Attorney General, the Texas Public Information Act sets requirements for the ability of citizens to access information on action taken by governmental bodies. This transparency provides Texans with a more complete understanding of how their government works, and, when necessary, provides them an opportunity to hold their public officials accountable.
The two morning sessions on the Texas Public Information Act are free to the public.
In the afternoon, a presentation will be provided by the Freedom of Information Foundation on the Texas Open Meetings Act.
The Texas Open Meetings Act sets requirements for state and local governmental entities to conduct open meetings and make information relating to governmental conduct and actions accessible to the public, also according to the Office of the Texas Attorney General. This transparency provides Texans with a more complete understanding of how their government works, and, when necessary, provides them an opportunity to hold their public officials accountable.
The afternoon session does involve a fee of $50 per person, which is being charged in order to help the Freedom of Information Foundation cover the costs of the event.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, founded in 1978 and led by a volunteer board of directors, is a non-profit 301(c)(3) organization devoted to promoting open government and protection of the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press, according to its website.
“This seminar highlighting Texas’ open government laws helps to inform citizens of their rights and responsibilities as they participate in our democracy,” said Kelley Shannon, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Also according to The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas:
• Open Government Seminars enhance understanding of the changing landscape of open government. Sessions address timely topics related to the Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act and include a legislative update on recent changes to the laws;
• The program is directed toward government employees, attorneys, journalists and anyone wanting to learn more about open government laws. Seminars feature experienced attorneys and others knowledgeable in this area of law; and
• The one-day seminars are offered in cooperation with the Office of the Texas Attorney General. This course has been approved by the Office of the Attorney General as meeting the requirements for open government training for public officials. State Bar of Texas Continuing Legal Education credits are also available.
AGENDA FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT SEMINAR IN MCALLEN ON JUNE 9, 2016
The agenda for the Thursday, June 9, 2016 Open Government Seminar in McAllen follows:
8:45 a.m.: Check-in, coffee available.
9:00 – 10:15 a.m.: Texas Public Information Act 101. The Texas Attorney General’s Open Records Division will provide an overview of the Public Information Act and its exceptions. Attending this session will fulfill the requirement for public officials or their designees to complete training on the Public Information Act under section 552.012 of the Government Code.
10:15 – 10:30 a.m.: Break
10:30 – 11:15 a.m.: Texas Public Information Act Cost Rules. The Texas Attorney General’s Open Records Division will provide instruction on the cost rules related to the Public Information Act.
11:15 – 11:45 a.m.: Q&A. Participants are encouraged to ask any remaining questions following the Public Information Act and Cost Rules presentations.
11:45 – 1 p.m.: Lunch on your own.
12:45 p.m.: Check-in begins for those attending the afternoon session and who did not attend the morning session. The afternoon session costs $50 per individual to attend.
1 p.m. – 2:15 p.m.: Texas Open Meetings Act presentation. Attorney Thomas Williams of Haynes and Boone law firm will present the basics of the Open Meetings Act using an AG-approved PowerPoint and his knowledge of the law. Attending this session will fulfill the requirement for public officials to complete training on the Open Meetings Act under section 551.005 of the Government Code.
2:15 – 2:30 p.m.: Q&A and closing remarks. Participants are encouraged to ask any remaining questions following the Texas Open Meetings Act presentation.
Participants may register for either or both sessions.
For more information, call the FOI Foundation of Texas at 512/377-1575 or email executive director Kelley Shannon at [email protected].
SHINING LIGHT ON OUR GOVERNMENT ALLOWS DEMOCRACY TO FLOURISH
Earlier this spring, Shannon wrote an essay emphasizing the importance of the Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Highlights of her comments follow:
Let’s be thankful that Texas laws value the public’s right to know through broad access to records and meetings.
But we cannot grow complacent. We must fight to keep the laws strong.
Every year, there are attempts to chip away at our Texas transparency in the courts, at the Legislature and in government offices.
Questions from citizens frequently arise about potential violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Has a school board held an illegal vote behind closed doors? Doesn’t a city council have to post specifics of its meeting agenda in advance?
When it comes to the Texas Public Information Act, governing access to government records, citizens sometimes find themselves waiting far too long after making a records request or are wrongly told that no such documents exist. Or, the requester is given an outlandish estimate of hundreds or thousands of dollars for the cost of obtaining the records. That cost becomes a barrier to information.
To address these and other public access issues, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is hosting a series of seminars around the state in cooperation with the Attorney General’s Office to provide training in open records and open meetings laws.
These seminars explain the state open government laws and how they are affected by the actions of the 2015 Legislature and recent court rulings.
Some Texas court rulings this past year have been especially troublesome for information access.
They have made it easier for nonprofit agencies to shield their financial records even if they perform government duties. They have closed off more birthdates from view in public records.
They have given private corporations more ability to keep their government contracts secret.
On the bright side, Texas lawmakers last year rejected some of the most egregious anti-transparency bills and passed several measures promoting openness.
New laws require many local governments to post videotaped recordings of their public meetings online; established a searchable database listing the “interested parties” in major state and local government contracts; required police departments to file prompt reports with the state in officer-involved shootings; and restored the freedom of journalists to report on allegations of wrongdoing in issues of public interest.
Information is necessary to participate in our government and hold it accountable. Our nation’s founders treasured the free flow of information as essential to protecting all of our liberties.
And, as the Texas Public Information Act explains, in our state we have an inherent right to know:
“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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”