Curious to know if your school district is taking payments from gas drilling companies? Dying to hear the 911 tapes from a campus lockdown set off by a fake gun? That's just a taste of the information you can unearth with the help of Texas' Open Records Act, and you don't even need to be a lawyer to do it.
The Texas Attorney General's Office is hosting an open government conference today and tomorrow. One of the sessions was on Freedom of Information requests. We couldn't attend, so we asked AG spokesman Tom Kelley to give us the lowdown on what we missed.
KUT News: The session on filing Open Records Requests was aimed at a general audience. What would someone learn if they attended?
Tom Kelley: One of Attorney General Abbott's real priorities in the whole time he's been attorney general is to make sure government officials statewide and citizens understand the public information act in Texas as well as they can. That is the Open Records Act.
We and Florida, maybe one or two other states, really do have best public information laws in the nation. We impress upon government officials everyday in this office to learn how to comply with the law, and learn what is expected of you as a government official in terms of making sure that records that are open are indeed provided to the public on a timely, prompt basis. That's what the whole thrust of the conference and our everyday interaction with media and citizens and government officials focuses on.
KUT News: If I'm a member of the public and I'm curious about what XYZ government agency is doing, how do I get my hands on those documents?
Kelley: You make a request in writing to the government agency that you are interested in. That official that takes your information, usually it's a public information officer who deals with these requests all day long. They in turn either release that information promptly, or they request a ruling from the attorney general's office, the Open Records Division here, to make that decision for them so they don't release something that they should not release.
General Abbott's whole philosophy has always been that records are open unless there's a reason that they should be withheld. It sort of turns it on its head from past thinking about that law where government officials were more eager to hold on to information. Here, they've got to release that information unless they have a good reason for withholding it.
KUT News: What would be a good reason to withhold information?
Kelley: The [Open Records] Act delineates numerous exceptions to the law in terms of what should be released. Obviously, social security numbers are not a good thing to release.
KUT News: What are some of the less obvious examples?
Kelley: Well, trade secrets is a good area that's really, really difficult to know unless you as a public official ask the attorney general to get involved with something like that. The attorneys in the Open Records Division, for example, what is and what is not considered a "trade secret", that is information released that could harm their competitive edge. Certainly, we don't want anything released that shouldn't be under the law. That's why do this on a daily basis.
KUT News: How does someone find out what the letter needs to say and how to request the information so that they get what they're looking for and not six boxes of photocopies?
Kelley: The best thing to do is to narrow your request as much as possible when you're approaching a government official. Know pretty much what you want and get it focused as much as you can, and ask for that information directly by name if you can do that.
The attorney general's office gets public information requests on a daily basis a lot for information that we have. We take it very seriously when somebody sends a request for information. It's often done in a very informal manner, but we take them all. If they're asking for specific information, we have to research it and determine if it should be released.
What we don't do is answer questions from requestors like, "What do you think about this law here and should the legislature have passed such a law?" We don't get into those question and answer formats. We strictly rule whether some information we're holding here should be released to the public, and we do it daily.
KUT News: What are some of the more unusual open records requests you've received?
Kelley: What we do get occasionally are requests about information, say in a personnel file, an employee of a school district who may have committed some embarrassing act which is not necessarily against the law. But information that would be terribly embarrassing to a person and not of any great public interest. That requires the attorney general to use some discretion in determining if that information meets the level of public interest in which it should be released. Oftentimes it is not to be released.
Anything about a juvenile or a sexual assault victim, that kind of information is totally off limits. We don't require that information to be disclosed.
KUT News: Do I need to write in fancy legalese to have my request processed?
Kelley: Your public information request does not have to be fancy, just written in a way that we can understand it. We do it every day.
KUT News: So could I write it on a napkin, for example?
Kelley: [laughs] Yeah, we've received requests in all sorts of media and fashion, but again, people have made an effort to contact us about information they want to know about, and we take it very seriously.