Public Information Act for Texas Cities and Counties
The Texas Public Information Act gives the public the right to request access to government information. The Act, which appears in Government Code, Chapter 552 adheres to the philosophy that all government information is available to the public, unless expressly provided otherwise by law. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is responsible for ensuring training is available to government officials. In addition to other resources, the OAG publishes a Public Information Act handbook annually.
Local governments benefit from a thorough understanding of the Act. Noncompliance may result in civil or criminal penalties.
Officials who are members of governmental bodies subject to the Act must take a minimum of one hour of training on the Act, or must designate the governmental body’s public information coordinator to be trained on their behalf. A designated public information coordinator must be the person primarily responsible for the administration of open records requests for the governmental body.
A public official must complete the training or designate a public information coordinator not later than the 90th day after taking the oath of office or otherwise assuming official duties. The OAG provides training at no charge on its Web site. The governmental body must maintain and make available for public inspection the record of its members’ completion of the training.
The following highlights the Texas Public Information Act:
- Only a written request, which includes requests by e-mail or facsimile, if received at a designated address or fax number, triggers the Act’s requirements;
- A request is not required to be in any specific format or on a government-provided form;
- Public officials are prohibited from inquiring why a person is requesting information, but if a request for information is unclear, a public official may ask for clarification or for identification in some situations;
- The Act only applies to information already in existence;
- Public information includes information that is maintained on paper, tape, microfilm, video and electronic data held in a computer memory, as well as many other forms of media;
- All information that is collected, assembled or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by or for a governmental body is subject to the Act, and is presumed public, unless it falls within one of the 51 exceptions in the Act;
- Officials are not required to conduct research or answer questions;
- The public may choose whether to inspect the requested information, receive copies or both;
- Information must be released “promptly,” which is defined in the Act as being “as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.” If the governmental body is unable to produce the information within 10 business days of the request, it must certify in writing to the requestor the date and hour when the information will be available; and
- A governmental body seeking to withhold information based on an exception must request an attorney general decision within 10 business days after receipt of the request if it does not have a previous determination ruling.
Public access to information is vital to an accountable, citizen-centered government. It is an effective tool for everyone who wants a better understanding of the operation of government. Furthermore, a citizen’s right-to-know fosters public accountability, prevents abuses of power and promotes trust in government.
The Friendswood city secretary states that, since placing open records request procedures online approximately five years ago, the city received a record number of requests. The city received nearly 130 requests between March and May 2009.
Brazos County created a public information Web page 18 months ago to relieve the growing number of calls answered by county employees. Local governments may wish to explore the use of technology such as a Web site to provide cost efficient and effective public access to information.
Follow this process to develop procedures for public information compliance for cities and counties:
- Choose a compliance coordinator. Identify a staff person as the local government’s public information officer, with the responsibility to become familiar with the Act and obtain training provided by the OAG or other source recommended by that office.
- Post signs. Properly post the required signs in the local government’s administrative office that inform the public of the right to access information.
- Monitor training. Ensure that public officials complete the Public Information Act training required by the Act or ensure that the public officials designate a public information coordinator with primary responsibility to process requests. Maintain and make available for inspection records of all training and designations.
- Make elections. Public officials may elect whether to allow public access to the information in the custody of the governmental body that relates to the public official’s home address, home telephone number, Social Security number or that reveals whether the public official has family members. Governmental agencies can withhold this information if they comply with Senate Bill 1068.
Texas Public Information Act Resources
- Office of the Attorney General’s Open Government pages
- How to Request Public Information
- Texas Public Information Act Made Easy (PDF, 271K)
- The Texas Public Information Act at a Glance (PDF, 14K)
- 2008 Public Information Act Handbook (PDF, 1.6M)
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