our view Texas needs AG, laws that promote openness for benefit of taxpayers
Texas has pretty good laws on taxpayer access to public meetings and records, but it needs judges who back up these laws in court — and an attorney general who has reverence for open government in his DNA. Unfortunately, court rulings have been mixed, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton doesn’t bring a lot of enthusiasm to this part of his job.
According to an analysis of 10 years worth of attorney general’s decisions by Houston TV news station KTRK-Channel 13 and the Houston Chronicle, the number of appeals from state and local agencies to withhold information has nearly doubled in the last decade, up to about 32,000 in 2018.
Regrettably, nearly all of those efforts to withhold records are granted, at least in part. Only about 5 percent — fewer than 2,000 requests — end in a full release of information. That’s down from 8 percent five years ago.
Since Paxton assumed office in 2015, the proportion of appeals sent to his office that end in withholding contested information has jumped as much as 6 percentage points, up from a high in the previous six years of 40 percent.
The attorney general’s office also publishes its records opinions online, but the KTRK-Chronicle analysis found that the documents are difficult to search, another unnecessary barrier to openness. There’s no way to track how many requests involve certain kinds of information.
For this study, KTRK had to digitize every decision going back 10 years and then run keyword queries. Average taxpayers will not be able to jump through those hoops.
Things like this violate the spirit, if the not the letter, of the Texas Public Information Act. The goal of the law is pretty simple: If your tax dollars are involved — in a city, county, school district, etc. — you have a right to know what is happening with that money. You deserve to know how much the school superintendent is paid or how much the city spent for gravel last year. After all, you’re paying those bills.
The Legislature should strengthen this vital law in this session, and in particular it should correct the infamous Boeing court ruling of 2015 that allows government to withhold more records involving private-sector contractors. In the most ludicrous example of this case, the city of McAllen refused to say how much it paid singer Julio Iglesias to perform at a festival. The Boeing decision allowed those private contractors and businesses to withhold more details like that by claiming trade secrets or proprietary information.
That must be corrected, and some lawmakers are trying to do that.
“Texas used to be one of the top states in terms of freedom of information,” said Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from suburban Fort Worth sponsoring some reform legislation. “I don’t think it’s there anymore. This bill will go a long way toward fixing that.”
Some of the cases cited in the KTRK-Chronicle analysis are compelling.
Kathryn Green’s son Patrick died of bacterial meningitis in the Harris County Jail. Green, a Houston lawyer, obviously wanted to know why this happened, including such basic facts as how long he had been sick and what had been done to help him. She started demanding answers and records, and one by one her requests were stonewalled. If this can happen to a practicing attorney, it can happen to any Texan.
There’s no valid reason for that kind of secrecy, and state laws are supposed to prevent it. The judges and state officials who interpret these laws should err on the side of openness and make the process as user-friendly as possible. It’s not happening during Sunshine Week, celebrated each March to support open government, or the rest of the year.
That needs to change, starting in this legislative session.