Is access to public information being deliberately slowed in Texas?

Though Gov. Gregg Abbott has declared that Texas is 100 percent open and functioning “without any restrictions or limitations or requirements,” not everyone is convinced.

Various news sources report that there has been delayed access to public records via the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) by some government bodies around the state.

Allegations

News publication El Paso Matters reports that because multiple local governments have been using “skeleton crews” – a term that means most staffers are not physically in the office (though they might be fulfilling their duties from home) – they’ve been able to limit access to public information since March of last year.

“El Paso is the worst,” said Houston attorney Joseph Larsen, an authority on government transparency laws. “The truth is there’s egregious examples all across the state and there’s really no, there’s no good reason for it.”

AG’s guidelines

Larsen said government entities are apparently following guidelines set by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton regarding the use of skeleton crews and the calculation of business days. According to Paxton, any day on which a skeleton crew is in place should not be counted as a business day.

An overview of the TPIA on the Attorney General’s website says requests for public information through the TPIA must be “promptly” filled. If the government body needs more than 10 business days to produce the requested info, it must notify the requestor with the delivery date.

Digital storage

Larsen and other critics of the TPIA delays argue that governmental bodies are using the term “skeleton crew” to restrict access to public information.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas claims that most public records are today stored digitally, which means the documents can be accessed by governmental agency staffers whether they’re working from home or the office.

Governmental bodies can get clarification of their obligations under the Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act from attorneys experienced in providing legal counsel to local governments.