WACO, TX — One of the ways we shine a light on what our governments do with our money, is we look at public records.
You can do the same, if you want to address a community problem, or just satisfy your curiosity.
Cameron Paige didn't have to know a lot about the freedom of information act to know it's important.
"Do you know much about the freedom of information act? no i don't," said the Waco woman.
As Cameron guessed, the answer is in the name.
It began during the 1960's and the administration of Lyndon Johnson, as the U.S. looked to accentuate its differences with closed, communist societies.
"Let's define when we might need a FOIA and how easy is it? There's actually a local Texas law called the Texas Public Information Act, which was passed in 1973. But the history of FOIA goes as far back as Lyndon Johnson. So a senator named John Moss originally put this legislation forward on a national level. And basically what FOIA stands for is it is a transparency tool that everyday citizens can use to get information of the government folds in their records," explained Austin attorney Josh Weaver.
Among things FOIA doesn't cover, some Confidential or personal information, issues involving national security, personnel issues don't typically get released, nor does information on contract negotiations.
Before you file to find out something from our government, make sure the government hasn't already published it.
"Because the government pushes out mounds and mounds of paper every day. A lot of information is already publicly made available for free. So before you go submitting a FOIA request, one common thing I would always advise doing is checking to see if that information has already been published, because in a lot of cases, there's a good chance it's already available on the internet. You have to have a specific dose you have to be intensely specific, know what you're looking for. Don't go on a fishing expedition. And then be specific really describe the thing that you are looking for to help the person out on the other end who's trying to complete that request for you. They will produce those records in a reasonable amount of time, defined reasonable here," said Weaver.
"The government may consider like a couple of years reasonable and I need it Tuesday. The agencies will use a process to prioritize those requests. The simpler requests tend to move to the front of the line and get answered as soon as they can. Oftentimes, if your request is very complex, then that might take longer for the agency to respond to you," said Weaver.
Reporters use the law to get records that lead to coverage of how our tax money gets spent.... among other things.
Attorney Jason Milam used the freedom of information act to draw attention to problems with the Texas "Theft of Service" law. That law allowed rental companies to charge us with theft and have us arrested sometimes with almost no evidence, if we didn't return a rental item.
"Being able to get information on people have been charged with these crimes. The number of people who've been charged by both of these Information Act requests and through the clerk's offices was really instrumental in demonstrating the scope of the problem, and also the location of the problem that it was one here in Central Texas," Milam explained.
With the evidence he gathered from the Freedom of Information Act successfully got lawmakers to change the law.
We've had the Freedom of Information Act since 1966. Since then, it's undergone a number of tweaks and changes. Some of them make information easier to get some of them a little harder. It's been some back and forth with the last few changes. have all been positive toward more information coming from our governments.
"When Lyndon B Johnson signed this legislation originally, at the end of the signature, he said, I sign this with a measure of a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society and yet at every single turn, every government agency has kind of resisted this type of legislation. And you can see why nobody wants to have somebody digging around in their business. That's true, but we have the opportunity to try," said Weaver.
And opportunity is what America's all about.