Travis County public records fight will head to court after phone plea, banquet invite fail

By Elizabeth Findell
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published April 19, 2016

Travis County will file a lawsuit to fight the release of information concerning its Workforce Development Re-Entry program after a phone call from County Judge Sarah Eckhardt failed to persuade a local activist to withdraw a public information request.

Zenobia Joseph, a former teacher, sent the county a request in December seeking information on the county program, which helps find jobs for people with criminal records. She said she became interested after the county issued a proclamation in November praising 80 local employers willing to hire ex-offenders at wages of at least $11 an hour.

Joseph wanted to know the names of the 80 employers and some general data on those who were hired. She told the American-Statesman that she has long been interested in finding jobs for ex-offenders and believes knowledge of friendly businesses would be a good resource.

The county pushed back, requesting permission from the Texas attorney general’s office to keep the information confidential. That appeal said the county promises employers involved in the program that their names will not be made public.

The attorney general’s office found that didn’t matter. In a letter last month, the office said the information is clearly public and must be released.

Eckhardt and Commissioners Ron Davis and Brigid Shea voted Tuesday to sue the attorney general’s office over that ruling. Commissioner Margaret Gómez abstained, and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was away from the meeting when the vote was taken.

The lawsuit comes after Eckhardt made a personal appeal to Joseph on Friday to drop the request.

“Would it be all right if I got you this information in other ways?” the judge asked, in a conversation that Joseph recorded and provided to the American-Statesman.
+Records fight will head to court after phone plea, banquet invite fail photo
Zenobia Joseph, a freelance writer and political activist, said she has long been interested in finding jobs for ex-offenders and believes … read more

Texas public information laws prohibit public officials from asking requesters why they want particular information or treating them differently from any other requester. The law does not address negotiating with a member of the public to withdraw a request.

Eckhardt said she wanted to avoid a lawsuit by finding a reasonable accommodation. She said she did not know Joseph was recording the call.

Instead of releasing the list of employers, Eckhardt proposed inviting Joseph to a banquet where many of them would be present. Eckhardt asked Joseph to help her stop the lawsuit because she feared losing it would set a precedent in other communities.

Eckhardt added that the county had no problem fighting Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying, “We go against him all the time — he’s crazy.”

Joseph declined to withdraw her request. She said Tuesday that the county should have known a list of participants in a public program would be public information and should not have promised to keep it confidential, she said.

“They made an empty promise,” Joseph said.

During the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting, Eckhardt said she had tried to find another way to provide information to Joseph.

“I would be happy to invite you to our celebration of these employers, but that is not enough for you,” Eckhardt told Joseph.

“That is not enough for the rule of law,” Joseph responded.

Eckhardt said she believes Joseph’s push for the information runs counter to a goal of helping ex-offenders. She said she feared backlash against businesses by consumers.

“In a more conservative county that does not have a robust re-entry program, the mom-and-pop that tries to help people back on their feet could possibly be villainized for it,” she said.