Filing an open records request is a straightforward process — one that occasionally takes time to be completed — and a useful tool for residents wanting to ensure their local governments are open and transparent.
The Herald and Temple Telegram have joined other news organizations across the country to celebrate Sunshine Week — an annual celebration of access to public information from local, state and federal government entities.
Killeen City Spokeswoman Hilary Shine recommends residents first search the city’s website for information at www.killeentexas.gov. But if someone is seeking information that has to go through the open records process, there are multiple ways to do it, she said.
An online request system through the website is available under the “Online Services” dropdown menu. There is also a form that can be downloaded at www.killeentexas.gov/legal. A request can be made in person at City Hall. One can be emailed to city staff, mailed to the City of Killeen or called or faxed to the City Attorney’s Office.
“All of these methods, the requestor must be specific about the document sought and must provide contact information,” Shine said.
Copperas Cove City Secretary Lisa Wilson also said open records requests are accepted in writing via email, by completing a request form in person (copies available for citizens at City Hall, 914 S. Main St., Suite B) or via the city’s website at www.copperascovetx.gov/city_secretary/open_records.
Once received, the request is assigned to the appropriate department that processes the requested information. When the information is attached to the request, it is assigned back to the City Secretary for review.
“The City Secretary’s Office is familiar with certain information, and will release those documents that do not require further review by the City Attorney’s office,” Wilson said.
A similar process is in place in Harker Heights. All requests are turned in to the Records Management Coordinator located in the Administration Department. It is then turned over to the appropriate department to respond to the request.
When the request is received, it is dated and initialed by the person receiving the request, according to Assistant City Manager Patty Brunson.
Request forms are available on the city’s website, http://www.ci.harker-heights.tx.us/.
The process can take up to 10 working days, but city staff say they work to release information as soon as possible.
“Transparency is a hallmark of any governmental organization,” said Paul Romer, spokesman for the city of Belton. “The government is for the people. We need to get the information to them — within certain limits.”
Temple City Secretary Lacy Borgeson, whose office processes open records, echoed Romer.
“An open and transparent local government fosters a trusting relationship between the residential and business community and the entity,” she said. “The community wants accountability as to how their local government operates. Knowing and understanding this offers a peace of mind as well as a sense of pride for the community.”
What are the laws?
The Texas Public Information Act, created by the Legislature in 1973, applies to all governmental bodies, and sets the laws for, as its name states, public information.
It details the type of information that must be public; establishes the guidelines for exceptions, information that is not open to the public; how to file a request; sets that an agency can charge for copies at a “reasonable” cost; and explains an appeal process for an decision that withholds information.
What that means is that the public can file information requests with cities, school districts, county government and other governmental bodies.
In the last fiscal year, the city of Temple processed more than 1,800 open records requests while the city of Belton received 1,027 open records requests, according to the cities.
Borgeson pointed out that number continues to rise annually.
Romer said, “We would have a lot more requests if we didn’t have our City Council information online and if we didn’t have mapping … online.”
Requesting information Belton and Temple have public information request forms on their websites. Romer said that is the easiest way to file a request.
Romer suggested that before someone files a request, to call City Hall to help determine the document that they are seeking.
“Our city clerk, Amy Casey, handles public information requests, and she can guide a resident through the process,” he said. “One of the helpful hints is if you know the documents that you’re looking for, you ask for that specific document.”
Specificity is key in public information requests, Borgeson said.
“This helps us to identify the responsive documents and promptly respond the requestor,” the Temple city secretary said.
Once a request is filed, public information is supposed to be released “promptly,” according to the Freedom of information Foundation of Texas. If there is a question if the information is covered under the law, the government entity has a 10 business day deadline to determine if it will argue that the information is not public and, subsequently, ask for an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office.
“In those instances, we go to the attorney general, write a letter why it should be protected and we inform the applicant that that’s what we’re doing,” Romer said. “Each of us — the city and the applicant — get a response back from the attorney general.”
How to get information
- Visit https://bit.ly/2UCmB6N to file an open records request with the city of Killeen.
- Visit https://bit.ly/2O6ehdg to file a request with the city of Copperas Cove.
- Visit https://bit.ly/2ClH2xZ to file a request with the city of Harker Heights.
- Visit http://bit.ly/2Hlozph to file a request with the city of Temple.
- Visit http://bit.ly/2Cn6Lpw to file a request with the city of Belton.
- When it comes to the Bell County government, open records requests can be sent to any of the elected officials or department heads — all are obligated to follow the Public Information Act.
- You can also submit requests to federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act. Visit FOIA.gov to submit a request.