University of Texas Will Seek Opinion From Texas Attorney General to Withhold
Professor William “Bill” Spelman of the LBJ School of the University of Texas at Austin, today told The Austin Bulldog that he “occasionally” uses his university e-mail account for sending and receiving messages that involve his duties as an Austin City Council member.
The Austin Bulldog filed an open records request with UT Austin yesterday to obtain copies of Spelman’s e-mails from his university account that involve his work as a city council member.
Those records will not be made available. The university will instead seek an opinion from the Texas Attorney General, said open records coordinator Annela Lopez, who works in the office of Kevin Hegarty, vice president and chief financial officer of UT, who is the university’s custodian of records. Based on previous requests for e-mails created or received by faculty members that do not involve their duties as university employees, it’s unlikely that the attorney general will order Spelman’s e-mails involving city business to be released.
“We need to let this play out through the attorney general,” Lopez said.
The City of Austin previously declined to provide copies of e-mails the mayor and council members sent or received about city business on their personal computers or cell phones. UT’s policy adds to the problem of obtaining records under the Texas Public Information Act that are created or received on other than City of Austin accounts.
What we have here is not a “failure to communicate,” as the Captain tells Luke and other road-gang prisoners in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, but a failure by the City of Austin to ensure that communication created or received by city officials—which by definition are “local government records”—are stored and maintained in accordance with the Local Government Records Act so those records will be available upon request under the Texas Public Information Act, Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code. That’s the law that gives everyone—not just journalists—the right to find out about the workings of government.
As it stands, any city official or employee who chooses to conduct city business by any means other than through their city e-mail accounts can evade with impunity any accountability for their actions. While this is not evidence of any wrongdoing, the gaping holes in the city’s recordkeeping procedures constitutes an open invitation to conduct government in the shadows.
As reported March 2, the lawsuit The Austin Bulldog filed against the mayor, each council member and the City of Austin seeks to obtain copies of e-mails about city business that these officeholders sent or received on their personal computers or cell phones.
The city’s position, stated in February 22 letters signed by Assistant City Attorney Jacqueline Cullom, is, “The City is not providing any e-mails or other forms of communication not created on city-owned equipment. The City does not have access to any city official’s personal cell phone or personal computer.”
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