Open Government Champions: Former teacher, Austin activist effectively uses Texas Public Information Act

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in an occasional series of opinion pieces on legislators and other Texans who are openly committed to sustaining government transparency and accountability. The articles are being prepared and distributed by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association.

By Dave Montgomery

As an elementary school teacher more than a decade ago, Zenobia Joseph often found herself wondering why students entered her fourth-grade class “unable to write a complete sentence.”

For Joseph, who was chosen Teacher of the Year at Austin’s Norman Elementary School in 2005, it marked the start of a journey to find out answers on a multitude of fronts, ranging from shortcomings in Texas education to what governments are doing with taxpayer money.

After leaving teaching, Joseph became an activist, educational consultant and freelance writer who appears frequently before legislative committee hearings, the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court. In pursuing her causes, she has become an expert on the Texas Public Information Act, lodging repeated requests for information that she says rightfully belongs in the public domain.

Joseph’s open-records queries have landed at the Austin Police Department, the city of Austin, the Austin Independent School District, the University of Texas at Austin and other governmental entities. She drew attention last year in a records request that was ultimately resolved in court. She and the Texas Attorney General’s Office were on the same side against the Travis County Commissioner’s Court.

Joseph tried to look into the county’s Workforce Development Services Program, which helps obtain jobs for those with criminal records. After the county issued a proclamation honoring 80 employers willing to hire ex-offenders, she submitted an open records request seeking the employers’ names.

Joseph, who supports efforts to help to ex-offenders, said she thought the program seemed to be “a good idea” and wanted to learn more about employers willing to offer jobs to those with past legal problems. But the county denied the request and appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s Office to try to withhold the information, saying the employers were promised that their names would not be disclosed.

After the AG’s office concluded the information was public and should therefore be released, the commissioners challenged the order with a lawsuit against the attorney general. A district court in Travis County ultimately supported the attorney general’s position and ruled that the names be handed over.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who sought unsuccessfully to persuade Joseph to drop her request, said in an email that she suggested to Joseph that releasing the names “could have a chilling effect” on employers, some of whom could “reasonably fear backlash from customers for having hired former felons.”

Eckhardt said she invited Joseph to attend an annual lunch for the employers and employees, where she would have an opportunity to meet “these wonderful people.” Instead, said Eckhardt, Joseph “insisted on and we complied with her right to the formal and public release of their names.”

Joseph felt the names should be publicly available.

“It’s public business,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine why it was a secret.”

Joseph describes herself as a “public policy advocate,” with a particular focus on social justice, education and transparency. She has no ties to a political party, she said, and supports candidates who best share her beliefs.

Over the past six months, Joseph said, she filed at least a half-dozen open-records requests, which often required follow-ups. In one request to the Austin Police Department, she asked for the department’s 750-page manual on mental health policy, which she later found online. She asked for bus contracts from the local transportation authority in seeking to prevent the closure of a bus route in her neighborhood.

Other requests, she said, stemmed from a belief in holding government agencies accountable for how they spend the public’s money.

“You can’t say you’re working and operating transparently and then hide what you’re doing with the taxpayer dollars,” she said. “It’s just not right.”

In submitting Texas Public Information Act requests, she said, it’s important to be succinct and specific so records officials have a precise description of what they’re searching for. Perhaps her most fundamental tip is this:

“The first and foremost thing is tenacity,” she said.  “You have to follow up.”

Zenobia Joseph