Press Association names Senator Zaffirini champion of transparency

submitted

Press Group Lauds Senator for Public Information Proposals

The Texas Press Association named Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, its Champion of Transparency for her leadership in promoting open government and accountability during the 2021 regular legislative session.The handsome award was presented to her at her Capitol office on Tuesday (Oct. 5) by Donnis Baggett, executive vice president, and Mike Hodges, executive director.

Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, receives the Champion of Transparency award from the Texas Press Association. Making the presentation at her Capitol office areDonnis Baggett, executive vice president (left) and Mike Hodges, executive director (right). Their collaboration this year include proposed improvements to the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act.

"I am delighted to receive this prestigious award recognizing our collaboration on open government issues," Senator Zaffirini said. "Transparency is essential to preserving democratic governance. Texans need to know what happens in the halls of power to hold their leaders accountable."

Senator Zaffirini filed eight bills this year to reform the state's open government laws, specifically the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act.

One of those bills, Senate Bill (SB) 930, was signed by the governor and became effective Sept. 1. It provides that, unless made confidential under other law, the name or location of a nursing home or similar facility in which residents have been diagnosed with a communicable disease and the number of residents diagnosed are not confidential. They are subject to disclosure by state agencies or local health authorities under the Texas Public Information Act.

“Senator Zaffirini is a staunch defender of the public’s right to know," said Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association. "She worked tirelessly and effectively to pass important legislation allowing Texans access to information on rates of infectious disease cases in individual health care facilities."

"This was much more than a news media issue," he said of SB 930. "Without that information during the worst days of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to make an informed choice about long-term care for a loved one. That is no longer the case, thanks to Senator Zaffirini.”

Senator Zaffirini said when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, she and her staff began receiving reports that family members were being denied access to information about the safety of nursing homes where their loved ones resided.

"I can only imagine the anxieties those families felt," she said. "As we looked into it, we found that advocates and journalists also were being denied access to information by state and local government officials. That’s why I decided to address the issue by filing my SB 930."

The senator's other open government proposals addressed some of the state’s most pressing and emergent transparency issues. By defining “business day” in TPIA, for example, SB 925 sought to close a loophole that allows some entities to avoid public information requests permanently by claiming every day as a “skeleton crew” day, which currently are not considered business days.

Other bills would have created a complaint mechanism at the Office of the Attorney General for requestors to report government bodies that fail to respond to TPIA requests and protect the public’s right to participate in open meetings held via teleconference or videoconference.

Senator Zaffirini has authored and supported open government legislation throughout her career. “We’ll try again in 2023,” she said, “and will file anew any transparency bills that weren’t passed this year.”

More information about these and other proposals is available via https://capitol.texas.gov/Home.aspx. Residents of Senate District 21 or other interested Texans are encouraged to contact the senator via 512/463-0121 or judith.zaffirini@senate.texas.gov to share their own experiences or to provide greater insight