Monday, October 20, 2008

Texas AG on Public Meetings

The Dallas Morning News Monday ran an article about a recent Texas AG opinion regarding the content of public meeting notices in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Click Here to Read the Morning News Article.
Click Here to Read the Actual Opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

According to the DMN article, Pete Eckert, the city attorney in Rockwall, said the law's intention is to keep citizens informed about how their tax dollars work. "It's in the arena of the public's right to know," Mr. Eckert said. "After all, it is the public's business."

Dave LaBrec, a governmental law attorney for the Dallas firm Strasburger and Price, said the opinion is a win for open government advocates. "It doesn't matter if you are taking action [on an item]," Mr. LaBrec said. "The criteria is, the public's got a right to know."

However, unless a citizen has the money and initiates the effort to press such matters in court, there is virtually no assistance available from the State or County to assist private citizens in ensuring their local governmental bodies comply with the law. WPC notes that the Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act occupy adjacent sections in the Government Code and are both representative of legislative intent to open the process of governance to an informed public.

In early January, WPC contacted the Gun Barrel City Police Department (GBCPD) requesting information using the Texas Public Information Act. The request was ignored (no response) from the GBCPD and was forwarded as a complaint to the Texas Attorney General's "Open Records Hotline" after the appropriate (ten business day) response period had expired. A follow up phone call from the Texas AG's office (TXOAG) was received within three business days, asking for additional contact information for the GBCPD as this had been omitted in the complaint. Two weeks later another follow up phone call to the TXOAG office determined that the GBCPD had been contacted but had yet to respond. Within two weeks WPC received a letter (copy) from TXOAG to GBCPD stating the nature of the complaint and requesting an answer - or at least a planned course of action by GBCPD to comply with the request under the Texas Statutes.

Fast forward to September 2008. Nine months later a follow up call was placed to the TXOAG and WPC was informed that the request had the dubious distinction of being the longest outstanding request received by that office. A few days later we received word that the City Secretary was now working on resolving the request. Approximately two weeks later, we received a letter from the TXOAG office stating that the GBC City Secretary had responded that "No such information exists". In effect, the question of fact (that there was no information) could not be refuted by the TXOAG and there would be no answer to our open records request.

We have heard here in Wilmer that opinions from the Texas Municipal League (TXML) and the TXOAG are merely "opinions" and require no specific action on the part of the city, it's officers or employees to comply with any request for information. Our recent experience seems to bear this out - even with an official ruling from the TXOAG office, no agency can be compelled to comply with the statute without resorting to litigation.

In the DMN article, Katherine Garner, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said that anyone can file a lawsuit in the appropriate county or district court against a governmental body for violating the open meetings act.

The clear indication is that this is the ONLY way to get a governmental entity to comply and clearly the cost is the burden of the citizen making the request. There are few if any provisions for a requester to recover any of the expenses for seeking compliance. We have to ask "WHY". Why is there a public integrity office in the District Attorney's office? Why is there a compliance office in the TXOAG's office? Why must it be the (financial) burden of the private citizen to ensure our governmental bodies comply with legislative statutes?

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