Victoria Advocate: Bill would close loophole in obtaining information from private accounts

By the Editorial Board
Victoria Advocate
Originally published March 4, 2015

Government is the servant, not the master of the people.

This very principle, the first words of the Texas Public Information Act, is the fundamental philosophy of our constitutional form of representative government.

All too often, elected officials skirt the law by conducting the public’s business away from watchful eyes.

With ever-evolving technology, a smart phone in every pocket, and some governmental bodies issuing portable tablets and other Internet-ready devices, it’s easier than ever for officials to hide what should belong to the public.

The Victoria Advocate experienced it first-hand with record requests pushed aside because the information – which is public under law – was stored in private electronic accounts.

The Victoria city attorney’s office maintained that because they did not possess the information, they could not obtain it.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is backing legislation filed by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, aimed at closing these loopholes and improving public access to open records.

House Bill 1764 specifies that a government officer or employee in possession of public records must provide that information upon request, according to information from FOI Foundation.

While this bill is a positive step toward protecting the public’s right to know, it is unnerving that it is even necessary.

Texas legislators passed a measure in 2013 clarifying that all public business, even if conducted on private electronic devices or private email accounts, is public record. It placed into law what the Texas Attorney General’s Office had been ruling for years.

Some governmental bodies have since established custodianship policies for public records held in private accounts.

Meanwhile, the city of Victoria has not.

Perhaps Councilman David Hagan, who is seeking another term in District 4, will pay closer attention to the law protecting the public’s right to know before threatening lawsuits for harassment in the pursuit of open records kept on his private accounts.

Councilman Emett Alvarez, who is also running for re-election, stonewalled the Victoria Advocate for a year after failing to comply with a records request for public information kept on his personal accounts.

Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor would do well to remember the Texas Public Information Act says the public is entitled to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.

The Victoria Advocate editorial board applauds Hunter for his commitment to transparency and accountability.

We hope the keepers of public records will follow in his steps.