Freedom of Info
Instead of giving Austin Independent School district attorneys the go-ahead to fight an attorney general's open records rulling, the AISD Board of Trustees backed off a legal fight over releasing the names of the other applicants for superintendent for now.
Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General, had agreed with attorneys for the Austin American-Statesman that the names should be made public in accordance with the Texas Open Records Act. The School Board was posted to decide whether to proceed with a legal defense of its secrecy in its meeting in two weeks.
The school district has already spent in excess of $21,000 to attorneys hired by the school district to support its position. AISD attorneys challenged the open records request from the American-Statesman and others saying that revealing the names of the applicants could hurt them and future searches for top talent. To proceed with the lawsuit would lead more legal expense.
Keith Elkins, executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation in Texas spoke to the School Board meeting Monday night in oppostion to continuing the lawsuit. No others spoke. It was clear, however, that this question of whether it is legally and ethically correct to release the names of applicants for Superintendent is an issue that reaches beyond AISD to other jurisdictions in the state.
"School is about to start for the fall and Austin taxpayers should attend Monday night's meeting en masse to teach the AISD School Board Public Economics 101: $21,000 spent to repeatedly be told you are not above the law is totally unacceptable," says Keith Elkins, executive director of the non-profit Freedom of Information Foundation in Texas. "I do intend to go to the School Board meeting tonight to testify - depending on what action they do or do not take the FOIFT may take additional action later," Elkins said Monday afternoon.
“Two of the biggest threats to freedom of information in the future, in my opinion, are an apathetic citizenry and trying to balance the ‘public’s’ interest versus an ‘individual’s’ interest as it involves personal privacy,” says Elkins. Elkins was an Austin television investigative and legislative reporter for more than two decades.
“How many times do we hear that a news organization, or public watchdog group, is having to retain legal counsel to fight for governmental information that in many cases has already been ordered released by the Texas Attorney General. And yet, for whatever reason, some bureaucrat or newly elected official decides the law doesn’t apply to them. Eventually, the information is often finally released. But at what expense to the taxpayer?” Elkins continues.
Some of Mr. Elkins’ comments for this post were not a direct response to the legal issues confronting the board Monday night, but they are germane. He was talking about the ongoing threats to freedom of information in general.
“It may involve tens of thousands of dollars or possibly millions, at the federal level,” Elkins continued. “And while it makes for a sizzling investigative news story or provides ample fodder for critics of big government rarely, if ever, do taxpaying citizens rise up and say, ‘Enough is enough’ demanding to know how the bureaucrat or elected official could justify wasting THEIR tax money. Remember, Government is supposed to work for us – not the other way around.”
Elkins says this type of open records resistance is an example of just one of the threats to freedom of information in Texas.
“During this most recent legislative session multiple new laws were introduced which were designed to ‘seal-off’ previous public records and information readily available to the public – theoretically because it left state employees ‘vulnerable’ to potential identity theft, even though no hard evidence was presented to prove that theory,” Elkins says.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas holds its 2009 Bernard and Audre Raporport State Conference Friday, August 21 at the Renaissance Hotel in Austin. State Senator Rodney Ellis, (D) Houston, is the conference Luncheon keynote speaker. State Senator Rodney Ellis, (D) Houston, is the conference's Luncheon Keynote Speaker. Ellis and State Representative Bob Hunter, (R) Corpus Christi, will receive the James Madison Award from the foundation. Ellis and Hunter were sponsors of the Texas Free Flow of Information Act, signed into law earlier this year by Governor Rick Perry. This award is given annually to honor those who have demonstrated outstanding commitment and service in upholding the principles of the First Amendment.
Conference agenda also includes panel discussions on social media and government, the recent legislative session, and shaping tomorrow’s open government by examining recent Freedom of Information rulings.
The Freedom of Information Foundation conference and/or luncheon is open to the public. The cost of the total conference, including the Keynote John Henry Faulk Awards Luncheon, and all sessions, is $100. The awards luncheon only is $75 per person. For more information or to register, visit www.foift.org or call the FOIFT office at (512) 377-1575.
© Jim McNabb, 2009