A recent news report on the Railroad Commission of Texas' practice of preventing staffers from talking to members of the media has raised questions about the agency's transparency efforts, with a key Republican lawmaker and a Democratic candidate for railroad commissioner among those expressing concerns.
The Associated Press this week reported that Milton Rister, the agency’s executive director, has vetoed all media requests to interview staff members since he took the helm in October 2012. The practice is a rarity among Texas agencies.
State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, and Steve Brown, who is running for an open seat on the commission, said the state's oil and gas regulator should adjust its policy to ensure that the public understands clearly how it is scrutinizing the environmental and safety effects of a drilling boom that has left Texas flush with cash.
“I really wish they would reconsider," Keffer said in an interview. “If you’re going to be held to the high bar of a fair regulator, then you cannot leave any gray area.”
Brown said it was “unfortunate that they feel it’s of their best policy to keep the public in the dark.”
Ramona Nye, the agency spokeswoman who handles nearly every media request, stood by the media policy and declined to answer specific questions about it.
“Milton has not seen a need for interviews outside of our current media/communications process,” she said in an email.
But Brown said that approach was only harmful to the Railroad Commission's reputation.
“When you limit open government, when you limit open access, that only feeds into the belief that you’re deliberately holding something back.”
Jared Craighead, the campaign manager for Ryan Sitton, Brown's Republican opponent, said Sitton had not reviewed the policy and could not comment on it.
"The commission may have good reasons for the policy, but it's not for Ryan to speculate as to what those might be," Craighead said. "He has campaigned on the need for the commission to be transparent in its decision making and to give Texans confidence in what the commission is doing."
A written agency policy in place since August 2012 says that all media requests must be routed through its media affairs director or the executive director, barring employees from communicating with journalists without either’s permission. The policy excludes commissioners, who each have separate staffs that handle media requests and occasionally honor interview requests.
The policy, which includes the same language that employees in the Texas attorney general’s office follow, does not appear particularly restrictive on its face. But Nye said Rister has never allowed a staff interview to go forward.
Through Nye, Rister declined an interview request.
When reporting stories with complex questions such as how industry affects air or water quality, journalists often find it useful — if not essential — to interview agency experts who gather and analyze technical data. Spokespeople at most state agencies — such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Department of State Health Services — regularly arrange interviews with experts on staff.
Keffer, who said he was not previously aware of the Railroad Commission's media practices, said he believes the agency is fulfilling its mission as a regulator. But he added that its media policy would only make it harder to shake any public perceptions that it caters to the industry it regulates.
“I think the oil and gas industry is forever going to be on the front page, and rarely is the oil and gas industry going to be on the front page in a good way,” he said. “Knowing that, you’ve got to be open, and you’ve got to be able to counter all that, best you can, with credible people.”
Christi Craddick, the only one of the three railroad commissioners who responded to requests to comment for this article, encouraged reporters to contact her office with any questions about the commission’s duties.
“Improving accountability and providing transparency at the Railroad Commission requires that we have policies in place that maximize the accuracy and availability of Commission information,” she said in an emailed statement. “We have staff who ensure that all questions from press members receive an accurate response.”