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Holding Local Government Accountable for Open Government

The Texas legal system has had two recent notable developments in a little-enforced or contested area of Texas law – the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act.

Corporations such as media owners, let alone private citizens, have been increasingly reluctant in recent years to take TOMA and TPIA offenders to court to compel disclosure of public information and to hold government accountable.  It is a costly endeavor and a positive result is not a certainty.  It’s also rare for local prosecutors to take local government to court for violating the TPIA or TOMA.

One can count on two hands the number of times an indictment has been returned in a TPIA or TOMA case since the law’s original passage in the 1973.  In fact, one hand may be sufficient.  It’s even more reason to take note of The Victoria Advocate newspaper’s efforts to sue the Calhoun Port Authority for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act and to single out the Harris Co. District Attorney’s Office for seeking an indictment in a Houston TPIA case.

The Advocate contends the port authority acted without proper public notice and is seeking to nullify the hiring of former U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, as the authority’s lobbyist at an annual salary of $160,000.

The judge in the case ordered Farenthold and two authority officials to testify in proceedings this week.  The case is expected to go trial in the fall.  And last month, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s former press secretary was indicted for withholding public records.  The Harris County grand jury indicted Darian Ward for failing to turn over public records after they were requested by a reporter.  Ward was initially suspended for withholding the documents and abruptly resigned in January when emails showed she attempted to block release of documents confirming she had been conducting personal business on city time.

TAB Associate member attorney Joe Larsen of Gregor Cassidy PLLC told the Houston Chronicle newspaper such indictments are “astonishingly rare”.  Larsen, who has appeared several times at TAB’s annual Southwest Broadcast Newsroom Workshop, told the Chronicle he was familiar with only a single case involving the Llano ISD a few years ago.  Ward’s indictment and pending prosecution sends a strong message to Texas public employees to follow the letter of law as it applies to TPIA requests.  It’s about time local prosecutors took such infractions of the TPIA and TOMA seriously and enforced the law.

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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