Posted inLocal Government

Here’s how you can get access to public information

When you think of news stories, you probably think about reporters interviewing people. But documents and data are just as important to holding power accountable. Under Texas law, many of those documents are public. 

Requesting the documents is a superpower journalists like to share. Anyone can do it — with the right information in hand. 

In Texas, public records can be requested under the Public Information Act. All records of public government bodies within the state are available to the public unless otherwise specified with an exemption. 

The Public Information Act is separate from the Freedom of Information Act, which applies only to federal records. It’s best not to use the term “FOIA” when making requests to state or local governments. FOIA requests have their own set of requirements and deadlines.

The Fort Worth Report put together a guide requesting public records in Texas — including whom to contact, when they’re required to respond and what records might be closed by law. Get answers to your questions about property appraisals, tax rates, government salaries, lawsuits and more.

How do I file a records request?

To file a public records request in Texas, find the records custodian of the department you’re requesting information from. 

A records custodian is the person who is in charge of fulfilling the request, and addressing your request to them will get quicker results.

Some departments have their records custodians listed online; the custodian contact information for Texas Health and Human Services, for example, can be found here. If it’s not online, email or call the department and ask for the custodian’s name and contact information. 

When writing your request, be as specific as you can. This will help the custodian understand exactly what records you’re looking for. 

If you know the title of the records you’re requesting, use that name in your request. For example, if it’s a specific report or document. If you know the general subject, but not what it’s called within the department, provide a clear explanation of what you’re looking for and ask that the custodian call you if there is any confusion regarding your request. 

Provide multiple means to contact you, including your email and phone number. You can request that records be sent to your email or that you receive physical copies by mail. It’s best to provide requests in writing so that there’s proof of when you made the request and what it was for — only written requests trigger a government entity’s obligations under the Public Information Act.

 In Fort Worth, you can use the city’s open records portal to streamline your requests and keep tabs on their progress. For records from Tarrant County, you can call, email or mail them the request here.

If you have questions about an open government issue, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas offers a free hotline.

If you live in Fort Worth and Tarrant County and feel as if you are being stonewalled in your efforts to obtain public information, please email Fort Worth Report local government accountability reporters Emily Wolf and Rachel Berhrndt.

When are officials required to respond?

In Texas, government entities must “promptly” produce requested public records. What is “prompt” will depend on the type and quantity of records requested; an entity is not allowed to arbitrarily delay fulfilling a request. 

If it will take longer than 10 business days to produce the requested records, the entity must notify you and give you an estimated time of release. 

If the estimated deadline comes and goes without results, reach back out to the records custodian using the same email chain you started initially. Remind them of the deadline, how long you’ve been waiting and your desire to get the documents as quickly as possible.

What is this going to cost me?

Government entities may charge for the work required to produce and replicate the records.

Just because an entity sends you a charge does not mean you have to immediately agree to pay the amount they’ve estimated. Ask for an itemized receipt explaining the charges for each document. In many cases, you can haggle your way into a cheaper records request — or get them for free.

You may also request a fee waiver. Journalists often request waivers because they intend to use the records in a story for the public interest. While records custodians do not have to grant a waiver, it doesn’t hurt to ask. After all, these are your documents.

Entities may also offer you the opportunity to examine records in-person for a lower cost. This eliminates costs associated with record replication. 

Are there any records I can’t access?

Some records are confidential under the Public Information Act.

Records containing an individual’s medical history, for example, are protected under privacy laws. Contracts between an agency and a company that contain proprietary information can also be deemed confidential.

The full scope of records that can be kept confidential is explained within the Public Information Act. Before you send a request, read through the exceptions and ensure that you’re not requesting confidential information.

If a records custodian refuses to hand over records, ask them to cite the portion of the law that allows for it. If they can’t, the records are rightfully yours — it just may take pointing that fact out to get them.

Additionally, governmental entities are not required to answer questions or perform legal research. The records you are requesting must already exist in some form.  

Sample email template to send to your local records custodian:

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