DMN: Force elected officials to publicly vote on open records issues

Local governments in North Texas have a penchant for secrecy. They routinely deny citizen requests for public records under a system that only a crook or a government-paid lawyer could love.

First, a little background.

The Texas Public Information Act allows any citizen to file a written request for records kept in government file cabinets or computers. The law applies to local governments, state agencies, the Legislature and quasi-governmental agencies (think Dallas Area Rapid Transit or Parkland Memorial Hospital) that operate with public funds.

Local elected officials — city council members, school trustees and the like — are like the monkeys who see, hear and speak no evil. They play no role in handling open-record requests. Instead, they leave the dirty work to city managers, school superintendents and other hired hands.

The problem is that voters can’t turn a city manager or a school superintendent out of office. State law should be changed to require city councils, school boards and other governing bodies to publicly vote on open-records issues.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit devoted to investigative journalism, issued a report in 2012 that found the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, McKinney, Garland, Mesquite and Plano among the worst offenders in Texas when it comes to denying and delaying citizen requests for public information.

The report, the latest done by the center and based on 2011 data, focuses on how often these cities ask the Texas attorney general for a legally binding opinion on whether government records must be released to the public.

An appeal to the attorney general, in effect, initiates a lawsuit between the requester and the governmental entity. Either party can appeal to a state district court if it disagrees with the AG’s opinion, but that costs more time and money.

Invariably, the government-paid lawyer hopes the requester will lose interest and go away during the weeks or months it takes the AG to render an opinion. The process often delays the release of records until a hot local issue is no longer relevant or newsworthy.

Particularly galling is the capricious use of taxpayer money to finance the keeping of secrets from taxpayers. This is like the firing squad making the condemned pay for the bullets to shoot him.

Very few regular citizens can afford to mount an open-records fight with cagey government lawyers operating on an unlimited budget.

The vast majority of cities and school districts in Texas farm out legal work to private firms that are politically influential in the community.

The governmental entity’s designated records custodian — often a school superintendent’s secretary or a city manager’s assistant — routinely sends open-records requests to those law firms for processing and handling.

This presents an inherent conflict of interest.

The law firm is in business to make money, which means racking up billable hours at $250 to $350 an hour at taxpayer expense. This is low-hanging fruit for a revenue-hungry law firm.

The Center for Public Integrity ranked the city of McKinney No. 1 in Texas when it comes to asking for AG opinions. McKinney referred 441 open-records requests to the attorney general in 2011, according to the study.

Here’s a solution for stamping out a lot of this unwarranted secrecy: Put the decision on whether to ask for an AG opinion on a regular meeting agenda and make elected officials vote on it in public. They might think twice before authorizing dubious legal arguments for secrecy.

The added accountability would bring more openness to government and eliminate featherbedding for government-paid lawyers. Who could argue against that?

We probably know the answer to that question.