The amount of time local governments spend responding to requests for information under the state’s Public Information Act (PIA) was on the agenda at a recent hearing of the House Government Efficiency and Reform Committee. The committee heard testimony on whether a public entity should be able to satisfy the requirements of the law by directing people to its website for information.
The Public Information Act, under Government Code, ch. 552, establishes that government records, with certain exceptions for confidential or other excepted information, are open records to which the public should have access upon request. The law establishes a process for the public to request information and requires governmental bodies to respond “promptly” and without regard to the reason for the request. Under sec. 552.221, the governmental body must make the information available for inspection or duplication in its offices or send copies by U.S. mail. Under sec. 552.228(b), if a requestor requests data in an electronic medium and it exists in that form, the governmental body must provide it in an electronic medium under certain circumstances.
If a governmental body cannot make requested information available within 10 days, it must notify the requestor and indicate a date and time that it will be available, under sec. 552.221(d). Before releasing information, governmental bodies must determine what should be released and what should be withheld under the law. Questions about withholding information are resolved through letter opinions from the Open Records Division of the Office of the Attorney General. Prescribed fees may be charged for especially large requests.
The Government Efficiency and Reform Committee is charged this interim with reviewing the application of the PIA to requests for large amounts of electronic data and whether procedures and deadlines under the law give governmental bodies enough time to identify and protect confidential information when responding to such requests.
Witnesses at the Aug. 27 hearing said one way governmental bodies could save time in responding to requests is by directing a requestor of information to their public websites when the information is available there, rather than by gathering and providing the information directly to the requestor. They expressed particular concern that local governments sometimes spend significant time responding to requests for large amounts of information that are later used by the requestor for commercial purposes, such as for marketing or reselling, when that information would be more appropriately and efficiently obtained from the entity’s website.
Under a letter opinion from the Open Records Division, ORD 682, issued in 2005, if a requestor agrees to obtain information from a governmental body’s website, the requirements to respond are met, but if a requestor does not agree, the governmental body must meet the requirement to produce the information in the traditional way. In addition, under Government Code, sec. 552.222, a governmental body may not inquire into the reason for a request for public information, and under sec. 552.223, all requests must be treated uniformly, without regard to the position or occupation of the requestor.
Supporters of amending the law to allow governmental bodies to meet PIA requirements by referring requestors to websites say it would make information available more quickly to the public, while saving the government time and money. Concerns raised at the hearing about directing requestors to websites included how to provide information to those who lack Internet access and how to address problems with navigating government websites on which information is not easy to locate.
by Laura Hendrickson