National, state groups support OA lawsuit against City of Odessa

ODESSA, TX (OAOA>COM) -- State and national newspaper associations, as well as the country’s largest newspaper chain, have signaled their support of the Odessa American’s lawsuit to prevent the City of Odessa from withholding public information.

The Texas Press Association and America’s Newspapers, which represents more than 1,000 daily and weekly digital and print newspapers, recently issued strong statements of support of the OA’s most recent legal action against the city.

“The American, one of America’s Newspapers members, is a beacon for government transparency,” a statement from the group stressed. “Without this lawsuit, it would be almost impossible to hold government accountable for violations of the Texas public records law,” a statement from Dean Ridings, executive director of America’s Newspapers, detailed.

Also, Gannett, owner of the Austin American-Statesman, the El Paso Times and six other daily Texas newspapers, offered their support of the lawsuit following a meeting last week in Fort Worth. And the Texas Press Association (TPA) also came forth with its support after the meeting.

“The Texas Press Association has always championed open and transparent government,” TPA Executive Director Mike Hodges said. “Open government not only is a public right but it is also essential so that newspapers can do what they do: keep the public informed and retain their trust. We will always support them 100 percent.”

OA Publisher Pat Canty said he appreciates the support.

“It is not all that common for such groups to rally behind the legal cause of one newspaper.” Canty said. “I think this type of support just underscores how uncommon and unacceptable the City of Odessa’s continued practice is of making it so difficult for the public to fully access certain public police records.”

John Bussian, a media law specialist and counsel for the OA agreed the support is important.

“The resounding support for the American from the statewide and national press means a lot to the ongoing work to uphold the public’s right to know.”

The OA filed the lawsuit in January to force the city to release public crime records in a timely manner and in accordance with state law.

Prior to the filing, for months the OA had battled the city to provide public documents to both the OA and the public that includes police reports and probable cause affidavits in a timely manner without redacting information that has always been considered public information under Texas law.

The city abruptly changed the traditional practice of releasing public crime information following the Odessa mass shooting on Aug. 31, 2019, that resulted in the deaths of seven people and the wounding of 25 others. Police reports from that shooting that were requested in the days following the incident were only released in late January.

It was after the shootings that the city began to demand freedom of information requests for all probable cause affidavits and police reports, which the OA and its media partner, CBS7, argue violates the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). Information that is always considered public does not require an FOI request — certainly not information that is covered under the TPIA. The change by the city resulted in reports on basic crimes being delayed by days or weeks and often with large portions of the reports blacked out.

In the past, the Odessa American received requested police records from the municipal court and not the city attorney’s office and often had those records in a few hours and unredacted.

The city attorney announced that no records would be released until they were vetted by lawyers for the city.

Bussian said the case has been assigned to District Judge John Smith and that he hopes the case will be heard during the next 30 days.