FOIFT James Madison Award cites Odessa American publisher, staff in fight against city hall

Odessa American Publisher Pat Canty (left) accepts the James Madison Award from FOIFT Director Paul Watler, a First Amendment attorney with Jackson Walker. The American was also honored with the Spirit of FOI Award.

In leading his troops into battle for transparency in city government, Odessa American Publisher Pat Canty exemplifies the principles set forth in the of Bill of Rights by its author, James Madison, attorney Paul Watler said in presenting the James Madison Award at the Henry Faulk Awards Luncheon during the 2021 Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas annual conference in Austin.
Watler, an attorney specializing in First Amendment issues and media law, said the Madison Award honors those who demonstrate outstanding commitment to the principles of the First Amendment and open government. 
For almost two years, the Odessa American’s editorial staff has pressed the City of Odessa to provide basic police information and other public records in a timely manner as the law requires. The newspaper’s pleas for a free flow of information led to the Odessa American filing a lawsuit against the city in early 2020 to seek the release of documents.
The lawsuit alleges city officials violated the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) by delaying or redacting police reports and probable cause affidavits, documents that are routinely considered to be public information. The city’s policies and practices, including stalling by unnecessarily submitting open records requests to the Texas attorney general for rulings, have resulted in the city unlawfully refusing to supply public information promptly in accordance with the TPIA, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit is ongoing. A regional appellate court recently ruled the newspaper sufficiently put forth factual allegations to support its claims. The next court date is in November.
In accepting the award, Canty acknowledged the efforts of his staff as well as the colleagues and friends who have influenced his career and personal development.
“I accept this award on behalf of many people,” he said, crediting those who have touched his life professionally and personally.
“It all starts with family,” he said, crediting his parents, Carol and John Canty, his wife Julie and their son Sam Canty for their support. 
He also introduced Griff Singer and Sharon Watson, the first editors he worked with when starting out as a reporter at the San Antonio Light, and Light colleagues Kevin Johnson and Michael Pearson. He acknowledged Texas Press Association colleagues as well.
“These people helped make me a better journalist and a better person,” he said.
“I also accept this award on behalf of of our (the American’s) editor Laura Dennis and our group of young scrappy reporters and photographers who have never backed down or shied away from a fight when it comes to the people’s right to know,” Canty said.
A fight like this is easier said than done, he pointed out, crediting AIM Media Texas LLC Chairman and CEO Jeremy L. Halbreich and President and COO Rick Starnes for their commitment to helping the American serve the interests of the Odessa community.
“They have never wavered in support of our cause,” Canty said. Rather than being intimidated by the prospect of legal fees, “they see it as an investment on the behalf of the people we are there to serve,” Canty said.
He also praised the efforts of the newspaper’s First Amendment attorney, John Bussian, and his colleagues, Midland attorney Randall Rouse and Houston attorney Jeff Nobles. He said the lawyers take open government matters personally.
“We have awakened in a ‘tail-wags-the-dog’ kind of world where elected officials have forgotten the simple fact that they work for us, the taxpayers,” Canty said. According to its published reports, the paper has often been forced to file freedom of information requests for routine public reports. The reports, frequently peppered with redactions by the city, were usually referred to the state attorney general’s office for review, a move that only added to the delay in basic crime information getting to the public.
The resources provided by FOIFT have been invaluable to the newspaper, Canty said. “It is so important to have an organization such as FOI Foundation and why I accept this award on their behalf. That’s right, I am accepting this honor on behalf of the people who gave it to me,” he said. “They provide us resources and training, expert legal advice and good old fashioned moral support so we can shine as bright a light as possible on government so that the citizenry can really see what’s really going on.”
Canty went on to note that he also accepted the honor “on behalf of each and every one of you here today. Were it not your unceasing support for Kelley Shannon and the foundation, they would not be able to do for us the kinds of things that help us do what we do  — help ensure a free society by providing information to the people we serve so they can feel more empowered to hold accountable the people and institutions there to serve all of us.”
Canty has been publisher of the Odessa American for 18 years. He is also a regional vice president for AIM Media Texas, LLC. He got his start in the news industry as a reporter and later Sunday editor of the San Antonio Light. He later became editor of the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen; publisher of the Porterville Recorder in California and director of training and special projects for Freedom Communications, Inc.
He is past unit president for the California Newspaper Publishers Association as well as past president of the Texas Press Association and the Texas Daily Newspaper Association. Canty received the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Service from TDNA in 2010.