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Lawmakers Consider Changes to Public Information Law

Lizzie Chen for KUT News

Texas lawmakers met today to discuss possible changes to the Public Information Act due to advances in technology. With the confluence of available data and technologies, elected officials may redefine what is public information and what isn't.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has asked the Senate Open Government Committee to take a look at possible revisions to the Public Information Act. Today, that committee heard testimony about how technologies are creating public information and how access to that information can affect government contractors.

As it currently stands, the language of Texas Public Information Act presumes that government information should be available to the public. The Act was instituted in 1993 to ensure that all government information is available to the public with the exception of information that is either confidential or protected.

In actuality, there are plenty of exemptions, it can take a long time to get some information and often there are fees involved.

Because technology has quickly changed the way information is accessed, the committee is looking at updating the way agencies supply their information digitally. Social media policies, e-mail retention, cyber security, 3rd party information and requests for frivolous or burdensome information were all discussed

Assistant Attorney General Amanda Crawford had a couple of examples for lawmakers of public information cases currently in litigation.

"I believe a citizen saw council member texting during a meeting and asked for the text they were sending," Crawford told the committee. "And the city said no and they had no right of access and they weren’t public information under the definition." 

In another case, an elected official conducted public business on a private email account. Is that public information? According to Crawford, it is.

"You cannot circumvent the Public Information Act by using your private email account to conduct public business," said Crawford.

For a while now, cities, counties and the state have all disagreed on what constitutes public information and what doesn’t. In 2011, Senator Kirk Watson filed a bill that attempted to upgrade public information policies, but it never made it to vote.  

The Legislature may reconsider the state’s Public Information Act during the session which starts in January.

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