Texas lawmakers debate open records bill

By: Elliott Blackburn
Daily Texan
April 3, 2003, Thursday

A third round of amendments to legislation which would restrict public access to state agency security practices will be debated on the floor of the Texas House on Thursday.

The "third read" of the legislation comes after Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, unsuccessfully proposed amendments Wednesday to HB 1191, which would make security system information such as camera locations and access codes confidential information.

King and four other legislators authored the legislation, which tightens what King's Chief of Staff Lucy Trainor describes as dangerously open access to state government information.

Because of the new awareness of the threat of terrorism, Texas must be more restrictive with the type of information the public can demand, she said.

"Texas has a wide-open records act," Trainor said. "We passed that law, but with these concerns today, we've got to take a second look at some of the things we have made open."

The amendment concerning security systems addressed what Trainor described as an obvious problem.

"With our amendment, there's no good reason for anyone to have that information," she said. "It's just basic common sense that if you're going to put a security system up, you're not going to want people to know the ins and outs of that security system."

In discussion on the floor Wednesday morning, some legislators thought the language of the amendment was too broad.

Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said he was concerned records such as open bidding for contracts would be unintentionally restricted under the existing amendment.

"I think we have to be very careful whenever we close open records," he said. "I thought that particular amendment ... was way too broad in the exclusion that it provided. Government will hide under any statute you give it in the broadest possible way."

The Daily Texan filed two open records requests with the University of Texas-Austin to learn the details of security cameras on campus last October. A request was filed in January for the types and locations of biological agents held by University research institutions.

UT System officials have participated as resource witnesses in the writing of the bill at the request of King and co-author Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie. System attorney Helen Bright and Erle Janssen, UT director of Environmental Health and Safety, attended public hearings before the State Affairs committee March 10 on the bill.

Roger Stackey, a System assistant vice chancellor for governmental relations, said University officials relayed information concerning litigation between the University and the attorney general's office concerning an open records request filed by The Daily Texan.

"This is an issue that has generated press, so we have been asked to provide information about issues that have gone on with the litigation," Stackey said.

Last week, the University dropped its lawsuit to prevent the release of details concerning biological agents. Last Friday, the University chose to appeal an order to disclose information about surveillance cameras.

Other material proposed for restriction includes information gathered by the government concerning the detection or investigation of terrorism and property vulnerabilities.