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Legislation restricting open records requests likely to meet opposition

Thursday, November 17, 2022 by Emma Freer

Legislation aimed at redacting personal information from city records subject to the state’s open record law faces an uphill battle at the Texas Capitol. 

This was the message in a Nov. 8 memo to Austin City Council from city staff. They were responding to Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who recently moved to amend the city’s legislative agenda to support bills allowing municipalities to redact the home addresses of their residents, upon request, from open records data.  

“It was brought to my attention that there was a large request that went out with over 60,000 individuals’ home addresses who had written to us in emails in favor or against an item,” she said at a Sept. 15 meeting. “And so thinking about that and how some of us have experienced individuals visiting our homes, I just wanted to protect the people who live in our city and like to write to us about their opinion and not have their home address released.”

The motion 

Despite support from some on the dais, others raised concerns about Kelly’s motion.

Council Member Leslie Pool said such legislation likely would prompt “serious opposition” from open government advocates like the ACLU. 

Mayor Steve Adler shared her concerns.

“If we have a zoning case and there’s a raft of emails all coming from a single neighborhood, I would imagine that the media’s going to want to know that that neighborhood came out in force on that item,” he said.

While Adler said he wouldn’t support adding such an item to the agenda, he suggested Kelly request a briefing from city staff on the issue, which prompted the recent memo.

Kelly’s office did not respond to an email request for comment. 

The memo

The state’s open records law “governs access to city-held records by members of the public,” including sign-in sheets used at city outreach events to collect attendees’ contact information, as Brie Franco, the city’s intergovernmental relations officer, explained in the memo.

“This information, if collected and maintained by the city, must be disclosed to the public, unless there is some specific provision that allows the city to redact it,” she wrote.

Such provisions exist, allowing the city to redact certain information related to governmental and law enforcement employees. But legislation seeking to carve out additional provisions for members of the public is unlikely to pass.

Of the 50 bills filed last session that were related to the state’s open records law, 10 proposed to redact personal information. Of those, six passed, but only two “exempted the personal information for members of the public, as opposed to governmental and law enforcement positions,” Franco wrote, adding that the bills were very targeted.

For instance, House Bill 872 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) prohibits municipally owned water utilities from releasing customers’ addresses unless they request otherwise. 

Bernal claimed the legislation would “prevent the use of public records requests by predatory lenders to target customers who were delinquent on their water bills,” as Franco wrote. But the bill still faced opposition, including from the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which raised concerns that it would prevent journalists from “working to spotlight water wasters in a community affected by drought.” 

The opposition 

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the FOI Foundation, said Kelly’s motion could face similar pushback. 

“Something that’s overly broad and could have unintended consequences has trouble at the Legislature because many of us who advocate for open government and the people’s right to know will point out the problems,” she told the Monitor.

The problems include a “paperwork nightmare for city employees” who are tasked with redacting such information from open records data, she said. Additionally, Austin residents could request to have their addresses redacted from a rezoning request or a short-term rental application, leaving their neighbors in the dark. 

Shannon suggested that Kelly could address her concerns about residents’ safety outside of the Capitol, such as by pursuing a local ordinance limiting the contact information collected by the city via sign-in sheets or from people who register to speak at meetings.

“It just sounds like this is someone trying to create a solution in search (of) a problem,” she said.

Photo by MarkBuckawicki, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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