Attorney pursues changes to Public Information Act

Allie Kolechta

An Austin attorney proposed policies during a city council meeting Tuesday that could close loopholes in a law that allows the public to view government records.

Under current law, government officials are not forced to disclose personal correspondence. But after media outlets requested correspondence among council members last month, they released emails with disparaging remarks about colleagues and activists, causing the public to question the execution of the Public Information Act. The act compels governmental bodies to release information relating to official business to the public and media organizations that request the material.

The members discussed potential policies to deal with emails involving city business received on a personal device Tuesday, said city attorney Karen Kennard.

The city attorney considers emails dealing with official business received on a personal device as public information and should be fully subject to the Public Information Act, said Jim Cousar, a municipal law attorney who spoke at the meeting. Case precedent disagrees with Kennard’s position, he said.

Cousar said one possible solution could be to create a general rule that city employees cannot conduct official business from a personal device unless absolutely necessary. A city employee may have to use a personal email address if an emergency occurs while they are out of the office, and some employees do not have city email addresses to conduct business, he said.

Another possible solution is for city employees to forward all city business done through personal devices to a city server or email account, Cousar said. The solution raises the question of who should be subject to the policy and what kind of emails would require forwarding, he said.

“I don’t think your city attorney or your outside attorneys are going to tell you that there’s a canned policy that you can adopt and everybody’s going to be happy with and it’s going to be easy,” he said. “But in the interests of open government, this is something that we certainly think the council should consider.”

It is likely that city staff will draft a proposal for guidelines, said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

“There are a lot of questions yet to be answered, a lot of decisions yet to be made and some guidelines yet to be instructed,” he said.
Council members have not yet decided the guidelines, but the council is tentatively scheduled to meet in executive session regarding the Texas Open Meetings Act complaints on April 7.