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Texas Public Information Act Requests During Times of Catastrophe: Senate Bill 494

Many new laws that impact Texas cities will be taking effect come September 1, 2019. Some of these new laws have a positive impact on our municipalities, and naturally some have a negative impact. One new law that will be very helpful for Texas cities is Senate Bill 494. This Bill addresses emergency situations under both the Open Meetings Act (Chapter 551 of the Government Code) and the Public Information Act (Chapter 552 of the Government Code). The focus of this blog will be on the Public Information Act and how a governmental body will need to address an open records request during a catastrophe.

This Bill adds a new subsection to the Public Information Act under Subchapter E titled “Sec. 552.233 Temporary Suspension of Requirements for Governmental Body Impacted by Catastrophe.” Once this new law comes into effect in September, a governmental body in Texas who is impacted by a catastrophe that is preventing them from complying with the requirements of the Public Information Act may suspend the applicability of the Act for a period not to exceed seven consecutive days, as long as the governmental body provides the office of the attorney general with notice. The suspension period will begin no earlier than the second day before the date that the governmental body submitted notice to the attorney general’s office and will end no later than the seventh day after the date the governmental body submitted the notice. If the governmental body realizes that the initial seven-day suspension will not be enough, then they may extend the initial period of suspension to another seven days.

What constitutes a catastrophe? The law provides the following definition:

(1)  “Catastrophe” means a condition or occurrence that

interferes with the ability of a governmental body to comply with
the requirements of this chapter, including:
(A)  fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado,
or wind, rain, or snow storm;
(B)  power failure, transportation failure, or
interruption of communication facilities;
(C)  epidemic; or
(D)  riot, civil disturbance, enemy attack, or
other actual or threatened act of lawlessness or violence.

A governmental body that chooses to suspend the requirements of the Act must provide the public with notice of the suspension. The notice must be posted in a place that is readily accessible to the public, as well as each location that the governmental body is required to post notice under the Open Meetings Act. Additionally, the governmental body must keep the notice of suspension posted during the entire suspension period. If a request is received during the suspension period, then it is considered to have been received on the first business day that comes after the date the suspension period ends. Moreover, under this new Bill, any Public Information Act request that was received before the catastrophe will be put on hold as well and will not be active again until the first business day after the suspension period ends. Lastly, the new Bill also requires the attorney general’s office to continuously post each notice they receive to their website from the date they receive the notice until the first anniversary of that date.

Many Texas cities receive numerous Public Information Act requests each month. Some of these requests are easy to address, while others can take large amounts of city employees’ time away from other important city business. During a catastrophe, city employees should be focused on more pressing matters, such as how to get water to their citizens; not worrying about a looming deadline for a simple request to view emails, documents, etc. Without argument, the Public Information Act is a vital characteristic of our free society, but so is the ability of our local government to promptly respond to the immediate needs of their citizens during an emergency. The addition of this new subsection will be extremely helpful in ensuring Texas cities can focus on what is most important during times of a catastrophe.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.

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