Last week we commemorated passage of the Freedom of Information Act, a landmark federal law that championed rights of citizens to know about the workings of their government.
From the FOIA came an array of state and even local public information or public records laws. The clear and overriding intent is to increase state and local government transparency and accountability.
Local government entities, including city councils, commissioner courts, and school districts, might want to take note of recent and not so recent court and attorney general opinions that local entities and governing boards must follow the provisions of the state open records laws even to the extent that the requested information might also be included within certain areas of federal law.
For example, Some entities and governing bodies and their administrative agents have tried to hide behind such federal laws as Hipaa and Ferpa in order to try either conceal information from the public or to manipulate policy by public officials.
Such attempts result in undermining and interfering with the public's right to know and the ability of officials to exercise their responsibilities and duties. Educators and students have had activities interfered with due to misunderstanding or misuse of federal Ferpa law. Bad policy actions have been the outcome of confusion or abuse of Hippa. Information is not automatically unavailable due to either federal laws.
Federal and state court and attorney general opinions have clearly stated that any information covered by state laws must be accessible and provided to the public despite of Hipaa and Ferpa. The obligation of entities and governing bodies is to comply with state open records statutes.
Public records laws can be powerful tools to advance the public's right and ability to know and be aware of the business of their municipal, county, governments and school district. However, misinterpretation and misapplication of other state or federal laws can be detrimental obstacles to transparent and accountable government. No official - elected or appointed - can be allowed to be an obstruction to the public's right to know, or a public body's need to responsibly govern.