Natural Disasters and the PIA
On September 1, 2021, more than 600 new laws in Texas went into effect from the legislative session and the emergency sessions called by the governor.
These laws range from such controversial issues as voting and handguns to more generic issues that municipalities face daily, such as the Texas Public Information Act (PIA), found in the Texas Government Code Ch. 552.
The PIA gives the public access to documents in the possession of the governmental body and sets out the means by which members of the public can access that information.
The PIA has certain requirements for applications (requests) for public information: the request must be in writing, although provisions allow for the writing to be submitted in electronic format, the request must be made to a person who is the officer for public information, or an agent of the officer, and the request must be for public information. If the information requested falls into an exception, procedures are laid out for the withholding of the information. If the information does not fall into an exception, the municipality must generally produce the information within 10 days.
But what happens if there is a natural disaster?
Just recently much of southeast Texas experienced Tropical Storm Nicholas, which although not a “major” hurricane still caused widespread power outages and some areas of significant damage, causing many businesses and governmental bodies to allow (or require) employees to work remotely. Acknowledging the impossibility of compliance in such situations, governmental bodies were allowed to temporarily suspend the application of the PIA. The procedure for doing so was set forth in Section 552.233.
On September 1, 2021, the requirements and the time frames were modified and restricted by SB 1225. The statute limited the ability of governmental bodies to temporarily suspend the PIA in several significant ways.
- First, the bill specifically eliminated from the definition of catastrophe a period when governmental staff is required to work remotely.
- Second, the bill requires that the catastrophe “directly causes the inability of a governmental body to comply with the requirements of the PIA”.
- Third, the bill limits the suspension to one declaration per catastrophe. The suspension period may not exceed 7 days. If after 7 days the catastrophe is ongoing, the governmental body may extend the suspension for an additional period of up to 7 days. The governmental body initiates the suspension by notifying the Texas Attorney General’s Office of the catastrophe and the inability to comply with the PIA. If an extension is needed, the governmental body must again notify the Texas AG of the extension.
- Fourth, the governmental body must provide notice to the public notice that the PIA has been suspended. The notice must be posted in a place readily accessible to the public and in each place required to be posted under the PIA. The notice must be maintained during the suspension.
Once the suspension is ended, all requests which were received during the suspension are deemed received on the first day after the end of the suspension. All requirements under the PIA are then in effect.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our commercial and business litigation practice can be found here.
Byron "Ford" Hamilton attended Baylor Law School, graduating in 1993. His time in the private sector was focused on litigation in state and federal courts, with first and second chair jury trial experience, real estate (commercial and residential), and some transactional and business organizational work. His public sector work includes work with municipal courts, police and fire departments, in addition to other general duties.