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Those of us who keep a close eye on Texas' evolving open government laws watch the state Legislature for signs of change. We also look at how local and state government agencies carry out these laws to see if they are working.
But we must focus on the courts, too.
Troubling rulings by the Texas Supreme Court and lower courts are watering down our Texas Public Information Act, long considered one of the strongest in the nation.
The momentous law, enacted in the early 1970s amid citizen frustration after the
Sharpstown stock fraud scandal, is based on the public's right to know. It presumes government records are open.
If a governmental body wants to withhold information, it can attempt to do so using one of the exceptions spelled out in the law. In most cases it must ask the Texas Attorney General's Office for permission to do it on a case-by-case basis.
That said, some cases end up in court, and the Texas Supreme Court twice last year interpreted the law in ways that made it easier to keep information secret.
The court decided the non-profit Greater Houston Partnership did not have to open its financial books to the public because it was not a governmental body, even though it performed economic development duties for the city of Houston and was supported in part by public funds.
Another disturbing decision involved the aerospace company Boeing operating in San Antonio. The court ruled that a private party doing business with the government can have its information in government documents withheld if releasing it would give advantage to a competitor. Furthermore, governments can now more easily withhold their own information on those grounds.
The result? Information is getting closed off in seemingly straightforward cases of public interest, such as the city of McAllen keeping secret how much taxpayer money it paid for singer Enrique Iglesias to perform at a holiday concert. The city says it doesn't want to be at a competitive disadvantage when negotiating with entertainers.