Senate Committee Hears Testimony on Open Records Law

Whether Texas' open records law should address “frivolous and overly burdensome” public information requests was among the topics discussed Monday at a state Senate panel hearing.

During invited and public testimony Monday, the Senate Committee on Open Government also heard testimony on the Texas Public Information Act’s implications for private companies that fulfill state contracts, whether the law applies to communication such as text messages, the security of public records and policies for retaining electronic records.

The discussion related to reducing “frivolous and overly burdensome” requests had mixed opinions. A bill by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, that failed last session, led to the discussion on the matter, said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Committee on Open Government.

Those who testified seemed to have different ideas about what would qualify as "frivolous and overly burdensome" and what the impact of potential legislation during the 83rd session would be.

“TPIA is our bread and butter,” said Doug Swanson, the projects editor at The Dallas Morning News, during public testimony. “Many of the state agencies that complain about frivolous and burdensome requests are the same agencies that require us to make every request, even the most routine, in the form of" a Texas Public Information Act request, which increases the volume of requests.

Camila Kunau, an assistant city attorney in San Antonio, said that modifications to the law could help reduce the burden on her office to answer thousands of public information requests each year. She said it costs the city too much money to respond to some requests, like one for every record related to the mayor, commissioner and city council.

“We would like to spend our money on other things that the rest of the city of San Antonio would enjoy,” Kunau said.

Some proposed changes that came up during testimony included increasing the circumstances under which agencies could charge for records requests and adding a review authority within the attorney general’s office that could gauge whether a request is frivolous or overly burdensome.

State agencies are grappling with how to retain and preserve electronic documents such as emails. Those who testified said there is no clear-cut statewide system for archiving electronic documents and communications.

For example, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission “needs to permanently archive some electronic records, and there is no good system for that right now,” said Peggy Rudd, a director and librarian for the commission. 

Some who testified Monday also advised the committee to consider whether the law is up to date with modern technology such as text messaging and to enable the ensured security of online documents from viruses and other threats. Others raised questions about whether third-party contractors — like private companies that run state prisons — are subject to open-record laws for documents related to their state contracts.

Legislators have pre-filed some bills related to public information for the coming session. For example, Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, filed a bill related to how traffic violations are disclosed in public records.

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