by Mark Lang
A recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court allows Texas government officials extended time to handle information requests from the public. Prior to this decision, state officials had a strict ten day time limit in which to reply. By law, government officials at this point must turn over the requested information or seek advice from the Texas Attorney General. Now, however, the Court has given Texas state officials an extra ten days in which to reply. Government officials stated the ruling was a “fair accommodation,” but they aren't the ones waiting for information.
Numerous problems exist with this court ruling. Texas open records laws are already deemed as some of the strictest in the nation. Paul Watler, a Dallas-based First Amendment lawyer, told the Austin newspaper, “It makes requesters more dependent on the good faith of government officials, which is well-placed in many circumstances, but unfortunately there are those occasional bad actors....”
For anyone who has attempted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from a federal agency, the task is very daunting. I attempted a (FOIA) request for a college thesis from the Central Intelligence Agency. Five months later I received a response stating my request was too vague, and the price of the search would cost me about $5,000. Plus the intelligence agency would not guarantee a positive result. I have conducted public information searches with Texas agencies, and the chore was equally time consuming and unpleasant. Further laws and court rulings that impede the public's right to know make public information laws practically useless.
Texas is not the only state to have been a victim of restrictive public information laws. The current national trend is a reduction in the kind of information that is accessible. Such as Michigan’s new law redacting medical information from public documents.(ref1)
For a proper democracy to exist transparency must be present. This court ruling further hinders the ability of the citizens to access critical information about their government. While the extension may be viewed as a reasonable request by state officials, In the long run, Texans are the losers.
Ref 2 –Austin American Statesman. 2/28/10. “Ruling allows officials in state to reset clock on public info requests.” By Chuck Lindell.