"TPA Hotline" by Ed Sterling, TPA Member Services Director
Q: Exactly who is pressuring my state representative and state senator to repeal laws requiring hardcopy publication of public notices?
A: Here are two things you can do to find out who they are: (1) Ask your lawmakers; and (2) Go to www.legis.state.tx.us.
Let’s look at HB 507, a 2011 bill filed in the regular session of the 82nd Texas Legislature. If it had passed, there would have been cutbacks to public notices of cities, counties and school districts. To get information on the bill, type hb507 into the search field and hit enter. When the screen changes, you will see a “text” tab. Click it and you will find a list of witnesses. Or, skip those steps and jump right to the witness list by cutting and pasting this link into your browser field: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/82R/witlistbill/html/HB00507H.htm.
You will see names of individuals and organizations that testified on the bill when it was taken up and considered in public by the House Technology Committee on March 17, 2011. Understand, however, that not all lobbying is done in public.
Speaking of the Legislature, TPA recommends that you and each of your fellow publishers get to know your lawmakers and their staff people so well that nametags and business cards become unnecessary. Even if you aren’t in philosophical harmony with your lawmakers on every issue, we wish for TPA members to be energized, engaged constituents. You want your elected officials to be eager to meet with you, to take your phone calls, and to answer your email and text messages in a timely manner whether they are in district or in the Capitol.
Q: Threats to public notice laws piqued my attention enough to look up a few public notice bills the TDNA/TPA Legislative Advisory Committee worked on last session. I checked witness lists and saw that we’re going up against some pretty powerful groups. What I find troubling is that some of these groups that oppose public notice in newspaper surely don’t realize or don’t care that there’s no way the average working Joe and Jane could easily find a governmental body’s website or get to the information they’re looking for even if they do manage to find the website. The newspaper is user-friendly to everyone and meets the legal requirements, so why are lobbyists wasting lawmakers’ time and taxpayers’ money?
A: Texas is not a policy maven’s cyber fantasy where paths to government-held information are smooth, seamless, intuitive, lightning-fast and universally available. Despite all the ballyhoo to the contrary, public notices printed in your newspaper continue to give citizens information that is easy to find and process. What they read in the newspaper helps them track how governmental bodies are behaving, what plans are on the drawing board, what contracts are up for bidding, etc. And when such information is fixed in newsprint, it becomes an inalterable archive for posterity. No digital medium can make such a claim.
Q: Citizens spotted the county road crew putting up a county commissioner’s reelection campaign signs and told me about it. Any problem with that?
A: State law prohibits the posting of campaign signs on public rights of way but does not prohibit the posting of campaign signs on private land with the landowner’s permission. See: http://www.txdot.gov/public_involvement/campaign_signs.htm.
For more guidance, let’s look at the Texas Attorney General’s publication “2012 Texas Ethics, Gift & Honorarium Laws Made Easy.” You will find this question on p. 20: “Does state law prohibit the use of public employees to perform private work for public officials during work hours?”
The answer: “State law prohibits a public official or public employee from misusing any government property, including personnel. Since most public employees are only allowed to perform work that benefits the general public during work hours, use of such employees to perform private work for an official during such hours would be prohibited.”
Q: We have a crowded field of candidates for sheriff in both of the major party primaries. A prominent citizen submitted a letter to the editor that, while not endorsing a candidate outright, masterfully points readers to a single candidate. I would rather run this letter as a campaign ad. Do I have a choice?
A: Yes, you have choices. Here’s one. You could tell the writer that her letter is quacking like a duck, so if it’s going to run, it’ll run as political advertising and with the required disclaimer. If, however, you choose to run the ad as a letter to the editor, it’s practically a given that you’ll have readers who interpret the letter to the editor as an endorsement straight from you. Any choice you make has consequences. Think about other candidates who might come to you and say, “Unfair! If I had thought you would print a letter like that, I could have had a friend do one for me. That would have saved me money.”
Q: I question our school board’s advance agenda item that says they are going to go into closed session to consider a spreadsheet listing students who transferred out of the district, where they transferred, their TAKS scores, a reason for each transfer, and what, if anything, the administration did to work out a way to keep each of those students in the district. Shouldn’t all of this be discussed in open session?
A: There is no exception in the Texas Open Meetings Act that allows the discussion of policy to be conducted in executive session. But, FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, makes confidential a student’s test scores and other information that could be used to identify an individual student. The Texas Public Information Act is in agreement with FERPA, as you will see on p. 117 of the Texas Attorney General’s publication, 2012 Public Information Act Handbook.
You can, however, make a written request under the Texas Public Information Act for statistics that don’t identify a student, such as the number of students who transferred, the number from each grade, in what semesters the transfers were granted, etc.