The news industry and open government advocates will join forces to celebrate the importance of access to public information during Sunshine Week March 15-21. Sunshine Week is marked by panel discussions, workshops and other events about using and understanding the latest developments in freedom of information resources. A calendar of these events is maintained on the Sunshine Week website,www.sunshineweek.org. A toolkit of free materials also is provided on the website. Some items for 2020 are available now and more will be available soon, including guest columns, editorial cartoons, logos for Sunshine Week, sample proclamations and freedom of information resources.
In addition, major news organizations work together on special reports provided free for anyone to publish in print or online during Sunshine Week. These are made available at the start of the week.
Texas has more transparency
In Texas, there is much to celebrate during Sunshine Week now that TPA-supported legislation passed in the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019 has become effective. Among other legislation, important reforms addressing Texas Supreme Court decisions that restricted access to government contracts with businesses and non-profits were passed, according to Legislative Advisory Committee Chairman Bill Patterson and TPA Executive Vice President Donnis Baggett.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office Open Records Division added a page to its website, www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open-government, which outlines the new provisions. The page includes two sections with updates to the Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act.
Thanks to successful legislation by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R.-Southlake, information about contracts that could be withheld under Texas Supreme Court rulings in 2016 is now available to the public and governmental entities are required to disclose information about contracts for centers and other public events funded by taxpayer dollars.
Watson and Capriglione are also responsible for legislation that closes the “custodian loophole” that some officials used to hide public information on their private devices. The law has always stipulated that a government document is defined as public based on its content, not on the device that holds it. Until SB 944 became law, there was no legal mechanism to compel officials to release the public documents stored on their private devices, such as emails on phones.
A Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that the Texas Open Meetings Act is “unconstitutionally vague” was repaired with successful legislation by Watson and Rep. Date Phelan, R-Beaumont. The new provision clarifies the definition of a “walking quorum,” a series of private meetings between small groups of elected officials to reach a consensus before a public meeting is held.
TPA members also helped the LAC protect public notices in newspapers by defeating another proposal to allow government entities to meet notice requirements by posting notices on their government websites, social media, school newspapers, utility bills, neighborhood association newsletters or a combination thereof and making publication in newspapers only an option, not a requirement.
Since its founding in 2005, Sunshine Week occurs each year in mid-March, coinciding with James Madison’s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day on the March 16. The national Sunshine Week observance is sponsored by the News Leaders Association and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Gridiron Club and Foundation. Many state and local organizations sponsor events as well.