Texas government sheds light on school records

TEXAS ‘ This year the Texas Office of the Attorney General has supported open government in response to numerous open-records law violations involving schools.

‘My commitment to open government is unwavering,’ Attorney General Greg Abbott has said. ‘I will continue to ensure that the sun shines on Texas government.’

In October, University of Texas at Austin‘s student newspaper, The Daily Texan, requested records pertaining to the location, cost, recording hours and technical specifications of campus surveillance cameras from both the university and the city of Austin.

UT-Austin officials promptly refused the request, saying that some of the information requested did not exist. They denied access to other files, arguing that it would hamper the university’s ability to protect the campus from crime and that the university, as a part of the public infrastructure, was protected from disclosure under national security exemptions. The request was then sent to the Attorney General for a legal opinion.

Abbott ruled that campus security cameras were not part of the national security plan. When UT-Austin and the University of Texas system sued Abbott, district Judge Paul R. Davis Jr. summarily dismissed the case.

The university will appeal the judgment, although it has dropped its suit against Abbott over another request from The Daily Texan.

In that case the Texan asked for the list of chemical and biological agents on which the university does research. Again, the university referred the matter to Abbott, who ruled that the information was public.

‘We’re certainly mindful of UT’s sensitivity toward this information,’ Abbott said. ‘But my commitment to open government requires me to uphold the law as it is written.’

In late March UT-Austin released the four-page report that it sent to the Centers for Disease Control, which listed anthrax and Ebola among 11 chemical and biological agents in university laboratories.

For The Daily Texan, the going is getting tougher. The city of Austin has also filed suit against Abbott to keep its security files secret.

‘The three lawsuits are very frustrating for us because we feel that what we requested is public information,’ managing editor Ryan Pittman said. ‘We have waited as many as five months to get the information we requested, and it is still unclear when we will get that information. I understand and respect the university’s and the city’s objections to our requests, but our patience is running thin.’

The city’s lawsuit has not yet gone to trial.

Elsewhere in the state, the Llano Independent School District superintendent was arrested on two charges of violating the Texas Public Information Act.

A local weekly newspaper, the Llano Buzz, was investigating the school board and had difficulty obtaining expense reports. Superintendent Jack Patton allegedly refused to release the documents, saying that the district did not maintain credit card records. The Buzz later obtained itemized receipts for the charges, including a $617.37 dinner for three school board members, their spouses and Patton.

At his arraignment, Patton paid the $1,000 bond

Abbott is prosecuting the case at the request of the Llano County District Attorney. The trial has been set for June 16.

And in Geronimo, the Attorney General again ruled in favor of open records. In this case, Abbott did not accept the argument of Navarro Independent School District that e-mails relating to a grievance against then board president Debbie Grieder were ‘personal communications.’

‘To conclude that a governmental body could withhold information, which clearly relates to official business, on the grounds that the information is not an ‘authorized’ or ‘formally adopted’ record would allow the entity to easily and with impunity circumvent the [Texas Public Information] Act’s disclosure requirements,’ Abbott wrote. ‘Thus, we decline to limit the act’s applicability to ‘official records’ of a governmental body.’