Sunshine Coalition forms to promote open government in Texas

As part of the celebration of Sunshine Month in March, several Texas organizations joined forces to promote government in the sunshine.
The Texas Sunshine Coalition includes the Texas Press Association, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Public Citizen, the Texas Association of Broadcasters and other organizations. The new coalition’s website is www.txsunshine.org and social media channels are in development.
For decades, Texas led the nation in government transparency, but two 2015 Texas Supreme Court rulings have blocked the public’s ability to access information about how tax money is being spent and about who is acting on behalf of citizens. The rulings reversed 40 years of precedent and have spurred transparency advocates to call for legislative action restoring public access. During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers failed to pass two bills that would have addressed the issue and restored citizens’ ability to follow how their tax money is spent on contracts with private companies and on taxpayer-funded non-profits performing traditional government duties. 
A policy primer and discussion of the Texas Public Information Act was presented in late March and more open government resources relating to both open records and open meetings issues are available on the coalition’s website.
Another opportunity for open government training is available to Texas journalists in April when the FOIFT and the Texas Attorney General’s Office will kick off this year’s regional Open Government Seminars, offering detailed training in state open government laws. The training is designed for government employees, journalists, attorneys and anyone interested in the Texas Public Information Act and Texas Open Meetings Act.
“Access to public information is crucial for participating in our democracy,” FOIFT Director Kelley Shannon said. “This seminar will help inform citizens and public officials about our state open government laws.”
The first event will be held at the University of Texas at Arlington from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, at the University of Texas at Arlington’s University Center. 
A free morning session presented by the Texas Attorney General’s Office beginning at 8:30 a.m. will highlight the Texas Public Information Act and associated cost rules. A midday session presented by attorney and FOI Foundation board member Tom Williams of Haynes & Boone, LLP will address the Texas Open Meetings Act and will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Participants may register for either or both sessions.
There is a $50 admission fee for the Open Meetings Act session. 
Light lunch refreshments will be served. Attendees may also bring their own lunch or purchase lunch from a nearby food court.
The final event of the day, from 1:15 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., is the new First Amendment Institute, designed for journalists and addressing press freedom and libel laws. The First Amendment Institute session is free. Some travel scholarships may be available for out-of-town journalists.
The Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act training sessions are approved by the Attorney General’s Office as meeting the state requirements for open government training for public officials. 
The sessions also qualify for Continuing Legal Education through the State Bar of Texas.
To register or for more information, visit the FOIFT website or contact the FOI Foundation office at 512-377-1575.