Texas OKs Message Boards for Officials to Communicate

14 August 2013

The U.S. state of Texas has adopted a new law permitting government officials to establish online messaging systems to communicate.

Another bill passed by the legislature defines the standards that governs the disclosure of public officials’ emails and brings state contractors under the Public Information Act.

The messaging legislation (Senate bill 1297) authorizes electronic written communication among members outside of official meetings, providing it is fully open to public view and searchable. No official actions can be taken via this method of communication.

The bill amends the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires that official business be done in the public and prohibits private meetings by a quorum of members of bodies such as city councils and school boards. Private discussions at the sub-quorum level are permitted and the new law does not change that standard.

Electronic messaging is not mandated by the new law, but is permitted. In addition to requiring that the messages be viewable and searchable, the new law says the communications must be displayed in real time and be displayed on the online message board for no less than 30 days after the communication is first posted. The governmental body may have only one online message board and it must be prominently displayed on the governmental body’s primary Internet website. The online message board may only be used by members of the governmental body and/or its officers.

Another bill (Senate Bill 1368) amends the Public Information Act, to make clear that electronic messages that pertain to official business are subject to the act.

The definition of “public information” is revised so that it “Provides that information is in connection with the transaction of official business if the information is created by, transmitted to, received by, or maintained by an officer or employee of the governmental body in the officer’s or employee’s official capacity, or a person or entity performing official business or a governmental function on behalf of a governmental body, and pertains to official business of the governmental body,” according to an official analysis.

 The bill defines “public information” as including “any electronic communication created, transmitted, received, or maintained on any device if the communication is in connection with the transaction of official business.”

 The same bill “clarifies that the records of a private entity under contract with the state to provide goods or services are subject to open records laws, to the extent to which those records are considered public information under Chapter 552 (Public Information), Government Code,” according to an analysis. “The bill accomplishes this by requiring that state contracts include a provision to which the private entity agrees to disclose records subject to open records laws.”

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