Keep records open
In its session that opens Jan. 8, the Legislature appears likely to get its hands on the Texas open records law. Every Texan should be concerned.
The law, widely seen as one of the best of its kind in the nation, is in place to ensure the public’s business is done in public. Unfortunately, changes being considered could weaken it. That would be a mistake, leaving all of us a bit more in the dark about how our tax dollars are spent, how our laws are made, and other matters of public interest.
The Texas Senate Open Government Committee, acting on a request from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, met recently to hear testimony about possible changes aimed at reducing the number of “frivolous” open records requests. In part, the request arose from complaints by contractors who say they have to reveal too much information when bidding on government work. And some public agencies complain they are being bogged down by what they consider to be frivolous requests for records.
To both concerns, we have the same response: Tough.
Any company receiving public money should play by the open records rules. The public has a right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, whether promised results are delivered and deadlines met. Potential bidders’ competitive concerns also appear to be groundless. If all private companies have to disclose the same kinds of information, none is getting an advantage.
And while we feel for those agencies that may have to deal with requests they’d rather not handle, we suggest that’s simply a cost of doing business. Government openness can’t fall because it’s not convenient for bureaucrats.
Another concern being discussed is whether public officials must share e-mails sent from private accounts regarding government business. Attorney General Greg Abbott has correctly said such communications are open records.
We would support changes recognizing the many forms of communication that have developed since the law was written in the early 1970s.Bringing the law up to date would make sense to avoid confusion.
But we agree with the testimony of an assistant attorney general, who, according to an Associated Press report, told the committee recently: “We look to the content of the communication, not the technology with which it was transmitted. Does it relate to the transaction of public business? If so, it falls under the definition, and you cannot circumvent the Public Information Act by using new technologies.”
We believe that is the approach lawmakers should use as they consider any changes to this important law. If it relates to public business, it should be public. Period.