in Houston, Texas
Texas Attorney General cuts off e-mail for public records filings
Wednesday, Dec 07, 2011, 06:43AM CST
By Steve Miller
mouse

The cost of obtaining public information just got less convenient and more expensive.

The state Attorney General’s open records division launches an online appeals system in February, which will require parties to cough up $30 if they want to use the system to respond to a government body’s appeal of an open records request.

The office says it will no longer accept challenges to public information requests or responses via fax or email beginning in January. Taxpayers, who used to be able to use email, will now have to pay postage fees if they want to go around the online system. Looming service cutbacks and price increases at the U.S. Postal Service impose even more cost and delay on the public’s quest for its own information.

"It will be free of charge if you mail it in, but if you use the online system it will be the $30," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the AG's office. "The use of that is completely optional."

Email had become overwhelming, Strickland said. The office issued open records letter rulings for over 19,000 cases last year.

Some agencies will look at the $30 as a discount, as they currently have no problem spending $40 for a courier service to deliver appeals.

The new levy is composed of a $25 “administrative convenience fee," plus an additional $5 fee imposed by Texas.gov. It was enabled by legislation sponsored by state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving. The fee is projected to raise $1 million through 2013.

Harper-Brown said she was unaware that email communication regarding appeals had been eliminated, and that her intent was to open one more electronic avenue of communication with the AG's office.

"I would think that email would be included in the electronic submission," Harper-Brown said. "I was never told that the office was going to stop allowing email."

But for a private citizen or smaller news operation, the convenience, speed and low cost of email correspondence has been eliminated. Those homebound or with limited mobility will be forced to pay the fee. And to ensure receipt of responses to open records appeals, certified mail appears to be among the cheapest way to ensure delivery, with a rate that starts at $2.85.

Harper-Brown said that if taking away email causes a hardship for too many people, "there's always another session where we can rectify any unintended consequences."
 
***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Comments
Chris Chiesa
Wednesday, 12/07/2011 - 03:33PM

I recently read that the USPS is going to run out of money around May 2012. What is the TAG going to do THEN? This sounds like a huge step in the wrong direction.

PC
Thursday, 12/08/2011 - 04:49PM

Ms Linda Harper-Brown should be voted out of office this coming election for not looking into the facts before taking action. When and if she gets voted out of office, we who voted her out could tell her "you were voted out of office due to unintended consequences but you can be voted into office again in 2016". See how she'll swallow that. Also, the AG's office has many incompetent assistants handling complaints. I complained regarding a city violating the open records request law and received 26 pages of copies where one question was not answered which until this day neither the city attorneys nor the AG's office have not answered. Ironically the answer is clearly written in black and white in the Local Government Code. Mr. Abbott needs to have his assistants take a reading and comprehension test before he hires anyone who represents him. Let's what will be his answer when I present this issue to his opponent in the up coming election. BOTTOM LINE, IF THESE ELECTED OFFICIALS ARE NOT FOR THE PEOPLE VOTE THEM OUT!

Longhorn
Thursday, 12/08/2011 - 08:27PM

This is a huge step for the AG's office. Probably the most progressive thing that division has done since they purchased computers.

The program will actually save money statewide. Unfortunately those savings will be mismanaged elsewhere.

Kent Hartsfield
Friday, 12/09/2011 - 02:04PM

I keep seeing this but since when did the Texas AG's office accept email communication? I thought they had always required appeals by citizens to be sent via regular mail? That is what the state code says - http://law.onecle.com/texas/government/552.305.00.html

Besides, local governments are forced to send requests to the AG's office before they would every deny an Open Records Requests to receive a ruling. It wouldn't make sense to appeal to a group that has already ruled on the subject.

Who this truly hurts are the local governments that are forced into sending requests to the AG's office for review before ever denying a request based on exemption rules already in place. The AG is really just moving money from local government to state government rather than providing a system that benefits everyone.

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