It has been clear for some time that public information law is under siege in the state of Texas.
Texas attorney general spokesman Marc Rylander’s swaggering performance at an open government seminar held by the AG’s office earlier this year — during which he encouraged public officials to slow-walk public information requests — offered ample evidence of its endangered status.
Further verification followed this week, when the Texas Supreme Court denied a motion for re-hearing, filed by the Fort Bend Herald in a 2014 case against Fort Bend County officials.
The Herald sought recovery of attorneys’ fees that resulted from a public information request for the names of two individuals who filed a criminal complaint against a school district contractor. When their request was refused by the county sheriff’s department, The Herald sued. The sheriff’s department eventually capitulated — only after the newspaper sustained extensive attorneys’ fees — and identified the complainants.
The newspaper won a district court ruling that its legal fees be reimbursed, but the county appealed. The Houston-based 1st Court of Appeals ruled in the county’s favor, and the Texas Supreme Court refused to re-hear the case.
One can only imagine the cheers and huzzahs emanating afterward from the attorney general’s public communications office.
County officials believe the Texas Supreme Court ruling affirmed their position that the requested information had been turned over on a timely basis. Herald chair Bill Hartman argued, however, that the governmental entity had blocked the citizens’ right to obtain what was clearly public information, causing a delay in reporting the information, and suffered no consequence as a result of its actions.
Hartman’s point: That when local governments delay the release of public information, it flies in the face of the law, and adversely affects the ability of all citizens who have the right to know.
Most of us who fight to protect public information access on a regular basis — and too often, on a shoestring budget — are acutely aware of the chilling effect that the additional expense of attorneys’ fees to defend access would have.
HB 2783, authored by state Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo) during Texas’ 85th legislative session, would have remedied that by making it easier for public information lawsuit filers to recover their attorneys’ fees. Remarkably, the bill passed through both the Senate and the House, only to be vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott, who offered the specious argument that paying requesters’ fees would encourage lawsuits against government.
It was a notable defeat for government transparency – one preceded by the deaths of at least 10 other House and Senate bills that would have strengthened open records law.
We will inevitably face these same challenges when the Texas Legislature next convenes on Jan. 8, 2019. The Texas Press Association represents our first, and last, line of defense against any further degradation of public information law in this state, and its member newspapers are the foot soldiers in the battle.
We are uniquely positioned with our elected officials and our readers to educate them on the importance of unimpeded access to public information — both to them and to us — and to leverage their support for legislation that will strengthen it. Given the climate we are in, it will require all of our resources-the relationships we have developed, the credibility we have worked so hard to build, and the ink we sling to hold the course.
Our unified and timely response to TPA’s requests for our support will also be essential.
Laurie Ezzell-Brown is president of the Texas Press Association.