in Houston, Texas
Government contractors resist Texas public records law with lawsuits
Tuesday, Nov 27, 2012, 12:04PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
dome

People who work for your government and deal with your government would rather you didn’t know so much about your government. And they would like the law to reflect that view.

Don’t take our word for it. As many as half of the lawsuits filed with the Attorney General’s office come from government contractors who want to skirt the Texas Public Information Act, Amanda Crawford, the assistant attorney general for open records, told a Senate Committee on Open Government hearing Monday, Associated Press reports.

As we have been reporting for more than a year, the Austin American-Statesman has been fighting in court to determine exactly the taxpayers’ involvement in a recently staged Formula 1 race outside of Austin.

Circuit of the Americas, the company that made agreements with the state, Travis County and Austin to build its grand prix race track, has argued disclosing details of those agreements would compromise it in the marketplace.

Crawford told two-fifths of the committee (Chairman Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and vice-chairman Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, were there. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler and outgoing Sens. Florence Shapiro and Jeff Wentworth were not.) what she regularly sees are contracts drawn with government bodies who are allowed very little access to the contractual fine points.

If your elected officials don’t know what is going on, what are the odds that you will?

The committee leaders also heard from the staff members from cities pestered by what they refer to as frivolous open records requests. Camila Kunau, an assistant city attorney for San Antonio, asked that state law be changed to allow the city to charge more for those kinds of requests.

Kunau did not offer at the hearing to help lawmakers define what, exactly, would be a frivolous open records request, although we are relatively sure she would be glad to.

And, speaking of frivolous, there is the reflexive response of some local officials to being asked to abide by the Public Information Act and its companion, the Texas Open Meetings Act: going to court on the taxpayer’s cuff.

Crawford told the committee the city of Lubbock and a commissioner in Bexar County are currently fighting to keep e-mails about public business private because they were sent on a private account.

City officials we have come to call Furtive Fifteen have taken their challenge to the Open Meetings Act to the Supreme Court, after having lost in every Texas court that would have them.

And taxpayers in Austin are still watching the legal meter run after Travis County attorneys ran up a legal bill of nearly $350,000 trying to determine whether Austin city officials violated the Open Meetings Act nearly two years ago.

Terri Burke and Russell Coleman, speaking on behalf of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, reminded the committee the reason the public information laws in Texas exist is not to make life less burdensome for elected officials but to give the public information.

If the laws need to be changed, Burke told the committee, they need to be made clearer to those officials who are currently unsure. More information is always better than less.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of Texas state Capitol dome by flickr user coffee is for closers, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Carol
Wednesday, 11/28/2012 - 02:26PM

Government uses many contractors just to avoid accountability under Freedom of Information laws. That way private contractors (not being under those laws) can shred the records when taxpayers and auditors start looking to closely at their business.

Washington
Thursday, 11/29/2012 - 05:59PM

Absolute monarchies are those in which all power is given to or, as is more often the case, taken by, the monarch. Examples of absolute power corrupting are Roman emperors (who declared themselves gods) and Napoleon Bonaparte (who declared himself an emperor).

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely" arose as part of a quotation by the expansively named and impressively hirsute John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

rbblum
Thursday, 11/29/2012 - 10:29PM

It is not possible to have a government of, by and for the people if there are measures implemented to operating government functions in an opaque manner. Lack of transparency provides fertile ground for unsavory and nefarious activities. . . . Look only to Beaumont Independent School District for sufficient data to push for open records that would benefit all taxpayers and hold recipients of taxpayer funds as well as the stewards of taxpayer funds accountable.

Dad
Friday, 11/30/2012 - 02:03PM

We should enact a law that suspends a contractor's ability to work with the government while lawsuits are pending. This would give them an opportunity to decide whether they should be doing business with the general public.

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