Susan Bushart, Sunshine Activist

This week’s Sunshine Activist interview is with Susan Bushart, who lives in Austin, Texas. In conjunction with the WikiFOIA, we are doing a year-long series of these interviews.

For her work in uncovering public records, Susan has been been anonymously smeared, gotten props from newspapers and the Pink Dome.

  1. What year did you file your first open records request?

    2003

  2. What documents were you looking for?

    Those reflecting our school district’s actual expenditures on athletics.

  3. Did you get those documents?

    Finally…….but only after persisting several months and expending hundreds of dollars.

  4. Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition has talked about having “a FOI moment”. Have you had “a FOI moment” and can you describe it?

    There have been so many! What immediately comes to mind occured while I was reviewing with Dianna Pharr, documents held by our former state representative Todd Baxter. The documents indicated that our school district’s superintendent Nola Wellman and lobbyist Tom Ratliff (son of former Texas Lt.Governor Bill Ratliff) were ‘the source’ of Baxter’s HB 2264 proposing changes to the Public Information Act that would compromise access to information held by public agencies. The bill failed to pass.

  5. What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?

    The Eanes Independent School District attempted to deny my access to my child’s education record. They did so by hiring attorneys (with public funds) to ask the Texas Attorney General for an opinion to exempt the record from disclosure to the parent. The school district’s attorney cited exemptions found in the Texas Public Information Act. Federal education laws (which supercede state laws) require that parents are provided full access to their child’s education record. The Texas Attorney General subsequently issued a ruling substantiating my parental right to access my child’s education record, and ordered the school district to release them.

  6. How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?

    It varies. At times, the school district responds within the 10 day time frame required by the Texas Public Information Act. On several occasions however, the District has failed to respond or provide access to the public documents making it necessary for me to contact either the Office of the Attorney General and/or the County Attorneys for help with compliance. Though these offices have provided assistance in obtaining the public documents the process generally takes several months and frequent follow up.

  7. About how many open records requests have you filed?

    In excess of 250 over the course of 3 years. Though this number may seem excessive to many people, it’s important to clarify that over 200 of these requests were noted by the school district to have been submitted in one day. The reason for this, was the school district responded to my previous single request for any and all documents that show or reflect athletic expenditures for the past year with over 200 pages containing only accounting codes (for which I had no key) . I returned those pages and asked for the back up documents (invoices, purchase orders). The district logged each page in as a separate request then publicly complained that I had submitted over 200 requests in one day. The district failed to provide access to the records originally requested in the initial single request. Another point of clarification would be that many of the notations on the school district’s ‘open records log’ reflect my requests for information contained in my child’s education record. It is inappropriate to identify these as public records requests, as a student’s education record is by law confidential and therefore not public information. I can reasonably assume that I am not the only parent requesting my child’s education records in this school district, though (with the exception of Dianna Pharr), other parents are not posted on the open records log.

  8. How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?

    Conversation, email ‘community updates’, sharing with Dianna Pharr who posts on her website www.keepeanesinformed.com.

  9. Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?

    Unfortunately yes. The school district I requested public information from retaliated in a variety of different ways from releasing my child’s education record to the public and media on multiple occasions, to restricting my access to my child’s campus.

  10. What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?

    Passing of legislation this past year HB2564 limiting taxpayers access to public information is an unfortunate and misguided response to taxpayers attempting to access public information. On a smaller scale, I believe our public school district’s most recent bond proposal was voted down as a result of our (Dianna Pharr and myself) distribution of the public documents. We shared the public information in email community updates, the public community library and Dianna’s website www.keepeanesinformed.com. These documents reflected actual district expenditures, lack of financial accountability and evidence of noncompliance with federal education laws. Many community members were unwilling to approve the construction of an indoor athletic practice facility when teaching staff, librarians and nurses were repeatedly reduced subsequent to ‘budget shortfalls’.

  11. Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?

    The Austin American Statesman has commented on my work favorably. You can find excerpts from these articles on Dianna Pharr’s website www.keepeanesinformed.com.

  12. What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?

    Be Brave. Be Bold. Be persistent and report noncompliance by public agencies to the appropriate officials responsible for enforcing the Act. Most importantly, lobby for changes in the law that will increase rather than decrease access to public information.

  13. What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

    Currently, there is no public official or agency in the state of Texas that is willing to prosecute violations/noncompliance of the Texas Public Information Act. There is real and significant retaliation against Whistleblowers.

  14. If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?

    I believe the Texas Public Information Act was fair and appropriate prior to the passing of HB2564 during the most recent legislative session. In my opinion however, lack of enforcement of the Act severely compromised its true effectiveness. Simply stated, if the open records law is never enforced by those with the jurisdiction to do so, the wording of those laws are irrelevant as public agencies frequently violate the law knowing there will be no meaningful consequence.

  15. Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?

    No

  16. Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?

    Yes.

Thank you so much, Susan, for taking the time to share your story. It’s inspiring.

If you are interested in contacting Susan you may do so by emailing her.

Sunshine Activists.

Sunshine Activist Chet Zarko.

Sunshine Activist Cal Skinner.

Sunshine Activist Joey Dauben.

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