Survey Finds Low Public Information Act Compliance In East Texas - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

12/28/04-Tyler

Survey Finds Low Public Information Act Compliance In East Texas

It's the right of every Texas citizen. The right to request and review all public records.
However, a recent survey found that when it comes to the Public Information Act, most East Texas government agencies are not making the grade.
The survey conducted by students at UT Tyler, found a major lack of cooperation and sometimes even hostility.

Flipping through each student account, Vanessa Curry and her students, Adrienne and Micah, are still surprised at the high number of negative encounters with the law. It was their UT Tyler project that may have uncovered a serious problem in East Texas.
The Public Information Act, a thick set of laws protecting your right as a citizen to check and balance government agencies.


"The public tax dollars pay for this information," said Vanessa Curry. "Therefore they have access for it.We did it two years ago just to see what is the status of government compliance in our area, and to do it two years later was to see if they've learned anything," said Vanessa.


The results of this year's study shows the agencies have learned very little since 2002. Vanessa sent her students to 120 schools, law enforcement agencies and city and county governments. Of those only 25 percent complied under the Public Information Act, an increase of only 8 percent in 2 years.
"As a teacher, 25 percent is a failing grade," said Vanessa.
The students examined three areas of the act. They first checked to see if officials had posted a required notice about the act in a prominent location. The notice informs citizens of their rights.
"That's a simple thing that they can do but we still found that that wasn't posted in a prominent place," she said.
 The students were sent to view records ranging from superintendents contracts and police reports, all public records.
They were told to note whether they were asked inappropriate questions when asking for those public records.
"The law says a government employee cannot ask what you are going to do with this information, or how it's going to be used. That's intimidation."
Micah and Adrienne said this is where the survey turned from a project to life experience. Adrienne's most dramatic encounter came when she asked to get information from the Upshur County sheriff.
"When I asked to see him," Adrienne said, "they brought me outside through a dirt parking lot to a tool shed where he was apparently searching a car. He stood there and interrogated me for about ten minutes and then didn't want to give me the information."
"By the time I left that back parking lot, I was shaking and just felt very intimidated."
Micah said he never ran into an extreme case like Adrienne's, but not all of his visits were a cake walk.
"I actually ran into a problem in Winona with the constable," Micah said. "He tried to tell me that he didn't have the records when he really did and he kind of asked a few questions like, 'What was I doing?' and some different things like that."
The students were also told to find wich agents would provide requested information within the 10 days required by law.
"Unfortunately, nobody in the office ever did comply," said Adrienne.
"Winona's school district was very, very compliant," said Micah. "They had their public information act posted. They asked me no questions. They gave me all the information I needed."
Other agencies scoring high marks, the Tyler Police Department, where you can easily access reports in the department's lobby or find public information online.
The Gilmer Police Department was the most improved from the last survey. However, Adrienne said those few examples just don't cut it, more education is needed behind the desks. 
"There was different encounters with secretaries who just really didn't know the law. I don't think they were intentionally rude or non-compliant but they really honestly didn't know what we were asking for that it was okay to give out that information. So, they were pretty protective of what they had."
"If everybody understood the law, that the public's entitled to this information," said Vanessa, "the employees are willing to give it out for whatever reason, that we eliminate that mistrust between both parties."
Vanessa and her students said this study was not done to find fault in any particular agency but to educate both citizens and the law agencies.
"A lot of times you hear people complain, citizens complain about where their tax dollars are going, or different things like that," said Micah. "Well they have a right to know that."
"If you ever have a question about the city or anything that's going on in the government that you don't feel right about, you have a right to look in to it," said Adrienne.
Vanessa Curry said Attorney General Greg Abbott is calling on legislators to amend the state's open government laws.
The amendment would require all public officials to undergo training in open records and open-meeting laws.

Maya Golden reporting, mgolden@kltv.com

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