COVID-19 could dampen access to public records, meetings

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced government workforces and pushed many employees to work from home, causing some government bodies to struggle to provide public records in a timely manner and conduct accessible public meetings.

The Texas Public Information Act and Public Meetings Act ensure citizens can access government records and public meetings.

KXAN has learned that dozens of state, county and local governments are exercising rules during the ongoing pandemic that allow them to postpone requests for government records.

“We want everyone to be as informed as possible at this time, and we want the government to be as transparent as ever,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “We are seeing lots of governments now putting in notices that they can’t fulfill public information requests in a timely manner. Some of this may be legitimate and understandable. But we certainly don’t want governments to take advantage of this law in a way that is not intended.”

KXAN has not found any government body wrongfully withholding information or violating the state’s transparency laws.

During a catastrophe, a government can suspend the applicability of the Texas Public Information Act for up to two weeks. A government body is typically required by law to respond to public information requests within 10 business days, but an Attorney General’s Office posting shows several exemptions to what is considered a business day.  

A day in which a government office is operating with a “skeleton crew” is not considered a business day. Also, “if a governmental body has closed its physical offices for purposes of a public health or epidemic response or if a governmental body is unable to access its records on a calendar day, then such day is not a business day, even if staff continues to work remotely or staff is present but involved directly in the public health or epidemic response,” according to the AG’s office.

To suspend the requirements of the public information act, a government body must submit a catastrophe notice the AG’s office. Those notices are posted online.

Catastrophe Notices

In March, 60 different government bodies in Texas submitted catastrophe notices, and seven submitted extensions, according to the AG’s office. Several governments in Central Texas submitted the notices, including the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Travis Central Appraisal District, City of La Grange, Johnson City, City of Hutto and Williamson County.

A few major state agencies also submitted the notice: Texas General Land Office, Health and Human Services Commission and Department of State Health Service.

Government responses

KXAN contacted several local and state agencies, asking if COVID-19 had affected their public information request process. Here’s what they had to say:

A spokesperson from HHSC said, “we are dedicated to following the Public Information Act and guidance from the Attorney General’s office as Texas HHS continues to help Texans on a daily basis and provide essential services to the public during the COVID-19 crisis. Per the new temporary suspension process under section 552.233 of the Government Code, agency deadlines for current and incoming requests are paused until March 30, and in the meantime our agency’s open records team is continuing to track and process incoming requests we receive. We’ll respond to requests as promptly as possible.”

A spokesman for the Texas Department Criminal Justice said, “there are no changes” to its record request process.

David Green with the City of Austin said the city is “following the guidance issued by the Office of the Attorney General. At this time, our staff who handle the processing of PIRs is teleworking and the City is continuing to process requests.”

John Wittman with the governor’s office said, “we are complying with the PIA, but our deadlines with regard to submitting requests for rulings to the [Office of the Attorney General] may be different, given that we are operating as a skeleton crew.  This is consistent with our handling of skeleton crew days, prior to this disaster.”

A spokesperson for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office said they are still fulfilling requests, but their staff “is teleworking, and often unable to access records that people are requesting.  We are working to fulfill requests when the information is readily available to our staff, but other responses to requests for information are being delayed.  Other county departments are working under the same constraints.”

Virtual meetings

COVID-19 has also altered some cities and counties’ ability to conduct normal public meetings. On March 16, Gov. Abbott suspended requirements of the Open Meetings Act that would allow fully virtual public meetings.

Shannon said it is reasonable to conduct a public meeting by video conference and stream it on the internet, but that can leave out people that don’t have access to the internet.

And virtual meetings don’t always work. The Palestine Herald-Press reported the City Council barred the public and press from its meeting on Monday. For health and safety reasons, the council opted to broadcast its meeting over the Internet, but the transmission was spotty and inaudible at times. City officials also did not provide a required toll-free number for residents to dial in and participate, according to the news report.

You can find more information and KXAN reporting on COVID-19 here.

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