Texas Public Information Act

  • Check out the sponsorship agreements that raise millions for UT Austin athletics

    Corporate sponsors at the University of Texas at Austin
    Photo by Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News

    It’s no secret that corporate sponsors help fund the richest collegiate athletics program in the country at the University of Texas at Austin. After all, company logos are plastered everywhere at games.

    But what are the details of those sponsorship agreements? How much does each company spend? And what do they get in return?

    Thanks to the Texas Public Information Act and some persistent digging, UT Sports Writer Mike Finger obtained copies of 19 major sponsorship agreements that answer those questions. UT fought the release of the contracts but the Texas attorney general ruled they’re generally subject to open records laws.

    You can check out our story and view an interactive table with links to the actual agreements (I helped make requests to other schools such as Texas Tech and Texas A&M).

    The records show companies such as Nike, MillerCoors and AT&T have pledged to pay $98 million through 2021 as UT tries to return to on-field glory.

  • Nickel and dimed: Find out which gas stations have faulty pumps that overcharge motorists

    Valero Station in San Antonio

    If you’ve ever suspected your neighborhood gas station is stiffing you at the pump, you might already know you can file a complaint with the Weights and Measures Program at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The agency’s inspectors verify the accuracy of gas pumps.

    But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?

    The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.

    So Express-News Data Editor Joe Yerardi downloaded a publicly available copy of the inspection data and took a look at it for himself.

    The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.

    Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.

    Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.

    Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.

    “It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”

    Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.

    These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?

    Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.

    “If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.

    (Photo credit: Derrich on Flickr)

  • A new Web site for Freedom of Information

    In the process of blogging about WOAI’s open-records battle with the Texas Department of Transportation, I had a chance to revisit the Web site set up by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. The foundation has completely revamped its old, sleepy site — check out how it looked as recently as 2008 in the Internet Archive.

    A new Web site for Freedom of Information   John TedescoThe foundation erased that static page and replaced it with social media offerings. The home page is a WordPress blog, and the foundation now has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube.

    The new site makes it easier for people to see the foundation’s good work, and it offers tips for people interested in open government. For example, Executive Director Keith Elkins gives advice on YouTube about how to effectively use the Texas Public Information Act to obtain government records.

    Social media still gets a bad rap in some circles, especially in the media. But look at the before and after shots of the foundation’s Web site. It’s not hard to tell which one is more engaging, and which one does a better job explaining to people why open government matters.