The Texas Railroad Commission is overhauling its dealings with news outlets, after critics said the oil and gas regulator's old practices lacked transparency.
The all-Republican commission on Tuesday approved updates to a written media policy that open government advocates, lawmakers and others had previously criticized. The new policy no longer mentions punishment for agency employees who relay incorrect information to the media. The change comes as new leadership at the agency has begun expanding news outlets' access to staff members.
“This is a good time to restate our commitment to transparency, accessibility and accountability,” Rich Parsons, the agency’s communications director, told the commissioners ahead of their vote.
In August 2012, the commissioners adopted a policy that routed all media requests through the agency’s media affairs director or the executive director and barred employees from speaking with journalists without either’s permission. (The language excluded commissioners, who handle media requests separately.)
That policy said any staffer given the okay to be interviewed “shall be responsible for any misinformation, misquotes, misinterpretations or misrepresentations conveyed by the employee. Failure to comply with this policy could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”
The new policy strikes that punitive language.
“The citizens of Texas must be provided accurate and timely information relating to the regulatory functions of the Commission to ensure openness, transparency and accountability in the Commission’s efforts to serve the people of Texas,” new language says.
The former policy, which included the same language that employees in the Texas attorney general’s office follow, did not appear unusually restrictive on its face. But for two years, Milton Rister, the agency’s executive director, vetoed all staff interview requests – a practice that became an issue in last year’s race for railroad commissioner and prompted criticism elsewhere.
The Texas House Committee on Energy Resources called the trend “concerning” in a report earlier this month.
When reporting stories with complex questions such as how industry affects air or water quality, journalists often find it useful — if not essential — to interview agency experts who gather and analyze technical data. Representatives at several state agencies regularly arrange interviews with experts on staff.
The Railroad Commission has opened up during Parsons' brief tenure. The former KXAN-TV (Austin) journalist, hired in November, came to the commission after stints on the communications teams of former Gov. Rick Perry and former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
This month, the agency held a 15-minute press call with David Craig Pearson, the state seismologist, to discuss the spate of earthquakes in the Dallas area.
"I'm very pleased with the progress Rich has made over there," said Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who has chaired the House Energy Resources Committee the last three legislative sessions.
At Tuesday's meeting, Railroad Commissioner David Porter said the previous policy was triggered by an employee’s false statements regarding the commission’s stance on a facility whose permit it was considering.
Here is the language of the agency's new policy, according to Ramona Nye, the Railroad Commission spokeswoman:
“It is the policy of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) that the citizens of Texas must be provided accurate and timely information relating to the regulatory functions of the Commission to ensure openness, transparency and accountability in the Commission’s efforts to serve the people of Texas.
To best ensure accurate and timely information is made available, the RRC has established a communications division to gather and deliver this information through the news media (including, but not limited to newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, periodicals, news websites, blogs, etc.), social media, digital communications, and other communications channels as deemed appropriate and useful.
It shall be the policy of the RRC that all news media inquiries made to any RRC employee must be immediately directed to the communications division’s media relations team to ensure a timely response. Commissioners and their personal staffs shall be exempt from this requirement. By maintaining a central point of contact for the media, the agency can more quickly gather information from our many areas of responsibility, while allowing employees to remain focused on assigned tasks. When deemed appropriate and contingent upon availability, additional RRC employees designated by the communications director, media affairs manager or executive director may be authorized to speak to the media.”