Some feel that Texas offers its citizens the best access to public records of any state through it’s “Public Information Act”. The Attorney General of Texas publishes a handbook about the Act that you can download here. There is a lot to read.
Basically most records that a government entity keeps can be accessed by the public. There are exceptions like medical records, retirement records, certain investigative reports, bidding information before a bid is awarded, and information that would violate a person’s right to common law privacy. That makes sense to me.
In practice however many agencies (including several in El Paso) consider you to be an enemy if you make a request. There are provisions in the Act that allow an agency to request an exception from the Attorney General of Texas. In practice this delays their disclosure of the documents you want about 60 days. You should familiarize yourself with the handbook if you make a request and the agency starts to give you guff. There are rules that must be followed by both sides.
If you are on to something and want to make a request these tips can help you get results quicker:
- Be specific, do not ask for the world. Specify individual records that you would like to see or have a copy of. They are allowed to charge you based upon the amount of work they have to do or the volume that they must produce (10 cents a page and $15 per hour). You can always ask for more later.
- If you are doing business with the agency you might want to have someone else make the request. That way they may not learn that you are looking into something and might not put you on their enemies list.
- Do not ask for something that does not exist. Generally they do not have to create anything because of your request, so do not ask for a report or analysis that does not exist. Tell them that you only want access to existing documents.
- Tell them to redact information which they take exception (under the Act) to disclosing
- Tell them that if they take exception to your request that you would like them to contact you before the Attorney General. You might be able to narrow your request without sacrificing the information that you want and avoid their delaying tactic.
- If you suspect that they will stall by asking for an exception, make two or three separate narrower requests with the hope that one or two of them will not be challenged.
- Understand that if you are delving into something that they want to hide they will often go to the Attorney General knowing that they will ultimately have to disclose the information but also knowing that they can buy time and that you might lose interest or maybe they will be able to complete whatever mischief they are up to. You might best make a simple request that will help you confirm what you are thinking first. Then you might make a second request that asks for more details.
- You have the right to review the records in person. Copies do not have to be made.
They have ten business days to respond to you either way. Note that the City of El Paso is not open on Fridays so that gives them even more calendar time.
It is a shame that some of the people who work in our local governments consider these requests to be an invasion of their privacy. Understand that they may try to defeat your request. They make take it to the Attorney General. I believe they lose more often than they win. They may send you the wrong information or documents (a simple mistake after all). They may outmaneuver you by understanding the Act better than you do.
We deserve better