By Farzad Mashhood
Originally published Nov. 13, 2013
The Save Our Springs Alliance is suing to get access to a Travis County commissioner’s conversations on the controversial Texas 45 Southwest tollway.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty has been a vehement advocate for the proposed highway, a 3.6-mile toll road connecting the southern end of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) with FM 1626 in Hays County. His campaign to return to public office last year was largely focused on the promise of getting the road built.
The Save Our Springs Alliance, a longtime opponent of the tollway that is designed to be built over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer and through a habitat for rare and endangered species, tried in May to get a broad set of emails, meeting notes, text messages and other communications involving Daugherty about the road.
“We just weren’t provided all the documents we requested, and we take issue with that,” said Adam Abrams, a staff attorney with SOS.
Daugherty did not immediately return a message left with his office Wednesday morning.
The suit was filed Tuesday in state district court and SOS is requesting the documents and repayment of legal costs.
Travis County, and Daugherty as a commissioner, isn’t deciding whether to build the road. As a state highway, its construction is the responsibility of the Texas Department of Transportation. But Daugherty chairs the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s subcommittee on 45 SW and SOS executive director Bill Bunch said that TxDOT has become more interested in building the road since Daugherty’s return to public office.
According to the suit, Daugherty responded to SOS’s request with “a minimal amount of documentation” and, through an assistant county attorney, said many other documents were exempt from disclosure under state law. An opinion from the Texas attorney general’s open records division, requested by the assistant county attorney, agreed that many of the documents were exempt from disclosure. The state and county attorneys cited state laws that exempt communications that are attorney-client privilege, show private deliberation about a policy decision and contain “highly intimate or embarrassing facts,” according to the lawsuit.
But SOS alleges in the suit that those exemptions shouldn’t apply so broadly. The exemption for “intimate or embarrassing facts,” for example, is meant to protect information such as that relating to “sexual assault, intimate family relationships, pregnancy, psychiatric treatment, abuse, some medical information, personal financial information not related to a government body, and other similar information,” according to the suit. The tollway is “a public project of great public interest, (so) there can be nothing both ‘private’ and ‘embarrassing’ that would allow the withholding of documents under the personal privacy privilege,” the suit says.