We love data. Data help us dispel myths, marshal our arguments, and figure out what’s really going on. Most of the data we rely on here at The Loop are created by federal, state, or local governments. For example, we use numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to track the local economy in Tyler.
Some government data is available online for anyone to check out, but a lot of it isn’t. Fortunately, both state and federal laws give Americans legal rights to access government records. In Texas, the relevant law is the Texas Public Information Act, passed in 1993. This law is great for journalists like us, but anyone can use it — including you.
There are, of course, exceptions to what you can request under public information laws, but in general, most non-court records are assumed to be public. To give you a sense of the kinds of things you can ask for, here are some of the requests we’ve made so far this year:
- All restaurant inspections conducted by Northeast Texas Public Health District, and any citations they gave out
- The complete Tyler Code of Ordinances — the city’s laws — in a single, searchable file
- Housing discrimination complaints filed with the city
To see a complete list of everything we’ve requested, and to download the documents we’ve gotten our hands on, click over to our new Freedom of Information Act Archive.
Filing these requests is easier than you might think. The National Freedom of Information Coalition has a sample request specifically written for Texas. All you have to do is fill in the blanks. Once you’ve done that, you send it to the Public Information Officer for the organization that has the records. Often that person’s contact information is listed online and will accept requests through email. Once in a while, you may have to pick up the phone or send a fax.
Exercising your access to public information is both a right and a responsibility. We don’t encourage filing these requests on a whim; that only interferes with public servants doing their jobs. But if there is information that would be genuinely useful to you, or if you think something is being done inappropriately, the laws exist so that you can do your part to hold government officials to account.
So why not try to answer that burning question you’ve always had about your local government? And, please, let us know what you find!
Still have questions? Try these resources: