Texas AG Abbott fighting ignorance about public information laws

Austin American-Statesman (Texas)
November 13, 2004

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott made headlines this year fighting for openness in the investments of public funds, including the Teacher Retirement System and the University of Texas Investment Management Co.

Since taking office two years ago, Abbott has earned a national reputation for championing open records and open meetings laws. He is public enemy No. 1 for the venture capitalists after insisting that investments of public money in their funds be accounted for openly.

Lost in Abbott's high-profile battle with the investment houses is his push for a law to require open meetings and open records training for all public officials in Texas. In a speech this fall, Abbott said he will be asking the Legislature to establish a requirement mandating open government training for government officials.

That is an important initiative that the Legislature should adopt as law. Too few government officials understand the requirements of the Texas Public Information Act, which comes into play when anyone asks for public records maintained by a government office. And too many who know the law ignore it.

Mandatory education about the state's open government laws could be a tremendous service to the public, which pays for and owns those records, and the government officials who maintain them. And it could save thousands of hours now taken up by the attorney general's office and others defining the tenets of the law.

Abbott acknowledges that such training has a price tag. "But," he explained, "the cost of ignorance is even higher when you consider the cost of enforcement, the cost incurred by government bodies in defending against open records and open meetings issues, and the cost to the public in the never-ending battle to gain access to public information. I urge the Legislature to work with me to ensure better open government in Texas."

That is not idle talk. Abbott's office has been managing a record number of open government questions, rulings and lawsuits. His office issued 10,747 rulings on open government issues last fiscal year, an increase of 2,000 over the previous year. In addition, the Open Records Complaint Hotline averages 10,000 calls annually.

Last year, Abbott established an open records prosecutor's office under his aegis to handle the most problematical open government complaints. That office managed 140 of the most difficult cases and avoided lawsuits in most of them. It also sued the Nueces County Clerk to compel disclosure of government information.

Education about the law might forestall many of the actions and questions that result in rulings by the attorney general's office. If it succeeds, the cost of mandatory training in open government would quickly pay for itself. Training should begin with the simple premise outlined in the state's Public Information Act: "The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."

After three decades, that simple premise still proves elusive for too many government officials who consider public meetings a nuisance and public records private. The attorney general's proposal is a good one the Legislature should adopt.