Ask an Expert Questions and Answers FOI

Can the school board start out in executive session?

Question: We have a school board who (at every regular meeting) meets at 6 p.m. in a called executive session. They come out of executive session at 7 p.m. and enter open session of their regular monthly meeting. This is unlike any body I’ve ever covered. Generally, executive sessions come at the end of the regular meeting and are only entered if needed. Many times they are deemed not needed. This board, on the other hand, religiously has executive session before the called meeting. Is this kosher?

Answer: The Open Meetings Act requires meetings to start in open session. The law could not be more clear about this. See below.


If a closed meeting is allowed under this chapter, a governmental body may not conduct the closed meeting unless a quorum of the governmental body first convenes in an open meeting for which notice has been given as provided by this chapter and during which the presiding officer publicly:

(1)  announces that a closed meeting will be held; and

(2)  identifies the section or sections of this chapter under which the closed meeting is held.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers FOI

Should an outside presentation to a city tourism board be open to the general public?

Question: A city council appointed tourism board requested an organization come to town and give them a presentation, with q&a afterwards, on how they could and could not spend Hotel Occupancy Taxes (HOT). The board invited city council members and had the intent to invite the general public, but invited only a subset of the community. At the presentation, a quorum of the board was present. Members of the board asked questions of the presenter. Questions included examples of ways they had spent and planned to spend HOT funds. No meeting notice was posted about the event. Was this an Open Meetings Act event or not?


Yes, if a quorum of the board is present, and they’re deliberating (which this appears to be) or receiving information and asking questions of a third person (which this also appears to be), then this is a “meeting” under TOMA. See the definition below.

(4)  “Meeting” means:

(A)  a deliberation between a quorum of a governmental body, or between a quorum of a governmental body and another person, during which public business or public policy over which the governmental body has supervision or control is discussed or considered or during which the governmental body takes formal action; or

(B)  except as otherwise provided by this subdivision, a gathering:

(i)  that is conducted by the governmental body or for which the governmental body is responsible;

(ii)  at which a quorum of members of the governmental body is present;

(iii)  that has been called by the governmental body; and

(iv)  at which the members receive information from, give information to, ask questions of, or receive questions from any third person, including an employee of the governmental body, about the public business or public policy over which the governmental body has supervision or control.

FOI Privacy

Balancing the right to know with the right to privacy

Public records are the foundation for reporting a range of stories important to your readers.

Police reports reveal a string of continuing break-ins in a neighborhood. Minutes from a school board committee reveal discussions and eventual recommendation to close an elementary school. Letters sent from a state agency to landowners identify potential locations for off-site location of spent fuel from a nearby nuclear power plant.

All of these stories crossed my desk during my tenure as editor of the

Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. As you might suspect, none of the news sources willingly volunteered the information. We relied on open meeting and data practices laws to get the information. Our newsroom credo: The more roadblocks thrown our way to gain access to public information, the more aggressive we became in our efforts.

At the same time, newsrooms should not report public records with reckless abandon. As with any right, newspapers have an accompanying responsibility.

Consider our front-page report of a 7-week-old boy who was revived after suffering cardiac arrest. The “heroes” included the foster parents along with the Red Wing police lieutenant and other emergency personnel who responded – all whom we identified.

One name was purposely absent from the story – the name of the child, who was under foster care. We also didn’t publish the child’s name in the ambulance runs printed on a separate page.

In this case, we decided the potential hurt to the natural parent outweighed the public’s right to know the identity of the infant. We made the decision after speaking with personnel at the county social services.

This was one of those rare cases where we withheld information.

Our reticence stemmed from the fear that one or more of the child’s parents might be living in the area. Identifying the child, who was born with medical problems, would raise the obvious question among acquaintances of the family: Why was the boy not in his parents’ home?

The county welfare director confirmed our suspicion. In nearly all cases foster children are placed with families in the home county. That was true here as well; one of the youth’s natural parents lived in our home county.

In the final analysis, we asked ourselves whether we still had a compelling story without identifying the child. As the welfare director said, “It was a great story. The crew did a terrific job.”

Editors and reporters should remain vigilant in monitoring public information and the needs of readers. As with this instance, decisions to publish should be based on the merits of each case.

Flexibility is the best posture. Editors should try to blend policies to best serve community needs. But public information should be sacred ground to newspapers. It should be to readers as well.

If editors bow to readers’ wishes – and they were able to eliminate publication of news at the ease of a phone call – imagine the vast incompleteness of reports. An entire newspaper’s content would become suspect.

Readers often ask why newspapers stand firm on access to and publication of these records. It’s much like the proverbial “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” If the press agrees to one concession, all too often an individual or agency will try to stretch the rules. Soon laws are enacted with additional restrictions on what once was routinely public data.

Newspapers should stand firm on the premise that readers are best served by a full menu rather than a selective serving of public data. Your argument is strongest if you deliver prompt and accurate reports.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers FOI

Can officials routinely wait 10 days to respond to my records requests?

Question: City officials routinely wait 10 days on all my open records requests, even when those records are easily accessible. Is that a violation of the Texas open records laws?

Answer: The Texas Public Information Act (552.221) does indeed give officials 10 days to produce a document “if it is in active use or in storage.” But otherwise, the law stipulates that the record shall be produced “promptly.” The law leaves no doubt about what that means: “An officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication, or both on application by any person to the officer.  In this subsection, “promptly” means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.”

For city officials who want to quibble about the definition of “promptly,” note that the law itself defines the word: “without delay.”

Also, the Attorney General’s Guide to the Public Information Act specifies this on page 22: “’Promptly’ means that a governmental body may take a reasonable amount of time to produce the information, but may not delay. It is a common misconception that a governmental body may wait ten business days before releasing the information. In fact, as discussed above, the requirement is to produce information ‘promptly.’ What constitutes a reasonable amount of time depends on the facts in each case.”



Into the issues: Resources for community newspapers

Underlying most of the issues we cover as journalists is the principle of open government, which is under attack on many fronts. Local governments want state legislatures to weaken public-notice laws; public officials evade open-meetings laws with private conversations; and legislators all over the country are trying to weaken open-records laws. For example, two bills in Florida would eliminate mandatory awards of attorney fees in cases where plaintiffs prove that government officials have violated the state Public Records Law, as we noted on The Rural Blog at

Bipartisan efforts continue to improve the Freedom of Information Act. In January, the House sent the Senate a bill that would scale back exemptions to the law and make it easier to use. We reported on it at

Meanwhile, keeping track of what’s going on in Washington has become more difficult as news organizations reduce staff in the capital. More than 20 states have no reporters dedicated full-time to covering their congressional delegations. We updated the Pew Research Center’s annual report on that problem at

Closer to home, members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors recently debated, on the list-serve we host for them, whether they should carry guns to public meetings. Barbara Selvin, a journalism professor at Stony Brook University, did a story about it for The Poynter Institute and we excerpted it at

More than once, editors on the list-serve have discussed how to handle reporting of suicides, and a recent discussion revealed that the dominance of social media has prompted some editors to be less timid in their coverage. The discussion prompted Brad Martin, editor of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., to write an article for the online Daily Yonder about his coverage of suicide as a public issue, and his involvement in community efforts to prevent it, after his county had six suicides in four months. Suicide rates are 70 percent higher in rural areas than urban ones, according to 2013 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Rural Blog noted that and covered both discussions at

A growing problem in rural areas is the financial condition of their hospitals. Stories about the problems of rural hospitals led the list of most-read topics on The Rural Blog in 2015. Of the 60 blog posts that were viewed at least 250 times by TRB readers, eight excerpted stories about rural hospitals, and some related items also had high readership. We gave some examples in a Jan. 1 blog item, at

Another growing health issue in rural areas is intravenous drug use, evident in increasing numbers of drug overdoses and local epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C. Our latest blog item on the issue is at

Even in rural areas, some health problems are causes or exacerbated by air pollution. How polluted is your county’s air? If you’re in one of the 25 most polluted states, you can find out from maps compiled by HealthGrove, a site that emphasizes data. The Rural Blog reported on it at

The biggest factor in U.S. air pollution, and the nation’s contribution to climate change, is coal-fired power plants. Most rural electric cooperatives are very dependent on coal, so they cheered the Supreme Court’s order blocking the Obama administration’s new power-plant rules while the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals considers legal action. Our latest item on the issue is at

County-level maps are a favorite Rural Blog topic. The Center for Food Safety created a map of concentrated animal feeding operations in Michigan, and says it will map CAFOs in any state upon request; see

Another map, by researchers at the University of Vermont, identified areas where bees are in trouble; see The recent increase in number of inmates at rural jails is illustrated by a map compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice. We published the map at

A vast array of data about rural areas is available in Rural America at a Glance, from the Agriculture Department. We noted it at

If you do or see good work that deserves national notice or could help other rural journalists, by appearing on The Rural Blog, email me at [email protected] so we can publish it at