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Texas Open Records Guide for reporter, students.

Texas Open Records Guide for reporter, students.

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    Txpubrecords Txpubrecords Document Transcript

    • Texas Public Records Guide <br />Terri Langford <br />Houston Chronicle <br />2011<br />Always bookmarked on your computer: <br />Texas Public Information Act (PIA), short version, <br /> Texas Open Records – Guide from the Texas AG’s Office<br />Texas FOI Foundation.<br />Sample Texas PIA letter<br />Guide to (Texas) Legislative Information <br />Texas State Directory - guide to all phone numbers of agencies, public officials by county, city. <br />What’s a public record in Texas? <br />Most memos, documents or records created by a taxpayer-supported entity, agency or department, including: <br />-an individual’s driving record<br />-inspection reports of nursing homes, assisted living, day care facilities<br />-court documents<br />-first-page info on police reports<br />-personnel records of most public employees<br />-e-mails and any written correspondence to and from most public employees<br />-agendas of public meetings <br />-calendars kept by public employees<br />-an agency’s employee phone directory or payroll list <br />-a list of public information requests made to an agency.<br />What’s NOT a public record in Texas? <br />Most things that involve a specific private individual, including: <br />-most records involving children (with some exceptions)<br />-the names of most people who receive state aid (again, some exceptions)<br />-medical records<br />-information contained in records about a pending investigation, <br />-college transcripts and performance evaluations of Texas teachers<br />What records are sometimes open and sometimes not? <br />-jury lists, sometimes sealed by judges. <br />-case files in juvenile courts, sometimes sealed. It’s up to the judge whether you can view.<br />-memos between attorneys and elected officials <br />-correspondence between elected officials<br />-records or information involving children who die of abuse<br />-autopsies -* PIA law says they’re open, but since 1999, more rulings that they are excepted when part of an ongoing criminal investigation. <br />Five things you may hear from Texas agencies and officials that are wrong: <br />“I have 10 days to get back to you.” No, you have 10 days to notify me you’re forwarding my request to the Texas Attorney General’s office because you question whether the document is public. <br />NOTE: If an official says he or she plans to forward your request to the AG, ask them to point to the PIA exemption before they file it. If they can’t point to it, ask them why they’re forwarding it. <br />“The person who handles this is not here so you’ll have to wait until they get back.” Once again, the law says “promptly” not when someone gets back from vacation. Try the general counsel’s office or ask for this person’s supervisor. <br />I don’t think that’s public.” or “I don’t have to give it to you.” Unless the agency can point to something in the statute that says it is not, let’s go with the law, OK?<br />“It requires too much work to produce it for you.” Really? Prove it. Show me an invoice that includes each task and how much you would charge for that.<br /> <br />“You owe us this money for the records even though we didn’t notify you of the charges first.” Oh, so wrong. They have to give you an estimate beforehand. <br />Public Records Dos and Don’ts: <br />Before filing a written request, try asking for it first. Be firm, but pleasant. You mom’s right. Honey does attract more flies than vinegar. <br />If on deadline, don’t make the agency call, your last one. When possible, make the request for info early in the reporting process. The earlier, the better. <br />Know what you are asking for. Try not to ask for the kitchen sink unless that’s what you want. But if you want the hot water faucet, ask for the hot water faucet. Spend some time talking to the agency about what they have, and how the records are maintained. <br />Drop that attitude. Don’t cop a horsey “I don’t talk to flaks” air when dealing with state or city agencies. Most (but not all) are open records veterans and know the law better than you. <br />Always pick the document up even if it turns out you don’t need it. <br />Always follow through and make sure the agencies comply with your request. If you don’t follow up, agencies get the idea that they can say no and get away with it. <br />Always be willing to negotiate. <br />Always address your request to the agency’s PIA contact. Faxes and e-mails not directed to an individual may not be considered PIA requests. All letters are considered request, even if it is not directed to an individual or custodian of records. <br />Remember there’s no “10 day rule.” The law says an agency shall respond promptly. Promptly means within a reasonable time. <br />Know the law before you make a request. Review the PIA statute, and go to www.oag.state.tx.us and search prior AG rulings to see if your request <br />falls under some exception to the PIA statute. <br />Tape the following to your computer screen: If 10 business days pass and the agency has NOT notified you that it is submitting your PIA request (for non-confidential info) to the Attorney General, the agency may NOT deny your request.<br />Use the PIA every day, every week. Here’s how to get started. <br />1. Ask for agency employee directories with job titles, salary, date-of-birth and phone numbers. You’ll be glad you have them during a breaking news situation. <br /> <br />2. Ask agencies/departments/sheriff offices/police departments now what databases or records are available. Ask for an agency or department’s inventory of records. <br />3. Be on a first name basis with an agency’s statistics department. They count everything and they know firsthand the pitfalls of the data you’re looking at. <br />4. When working on a story, consider everything you think government counts that might help your story. DWIs, arrests, private contracts, dismissed cases, welfare recipients, dead children, animal inspection reports at the local zoo, whatever. Start asking for those records and data. <br />5. When agency officials make a statement of fact, ask them to back it up with records or data. When an agency says they investigated something, reviewed something, or are keeping tabs of something, make them prove it. <br />6. Periodically request a log of all PIA requests over a specific period of time. <br />Bonus: Two Texas folks you should get to know better because you will probably deal with them most often as a reporter: <br />-Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange, 512.424.2080 and tela.mange@txdps.state.tx.us. <br /> -Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins, 512.438.3112 and cell: 512.787.5090, Patrick.Crimmins@dfps.state.tx.us <br />