Leader Blues

Thursday, November 01, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Texas pushes FOI envelope

Ordinarily, we do not look to Texas for either wise jurisprudence or ethical example, but we hope other venues, including the Arkansas Supreme Court, will ponder a ruling by a state district judge at Dallas. She said that the city government must release emails, including those written on a personal computer, if they relate to the government’s business.

Regardless of the platform used to conduct the government’s business, whether it is a government computer or someone’s personal computer or cell phone, it is still government business and the public has a right to examine them, Judge Gena Slaughter ruled.

Twenty-two months ago, The Dallas Morning News requested emails from city officials’ personal email accounts when it spotted holes in official correspondence about a $6.3 million tax abatement for a downtown corporate headquarters that the city handed Hunt Consolidated. Texas, like other states (Arkansas among them), is giving away the store to companies that say they will build a facility in the city or else threaten to leave and go elsewhere if they are not given subsidies or heavy tax benefits. Government officials and the companies don’t like people prying for the details.

City economic development officials released only the “public” documents about the deal under the state’s freedom of information act and asserted that messages about the transactions on an official’s BlackBerry and private email account were her private business and off limits to the press or the public. The judge said no and struck a blow for transparency in government business.

The Arkansas Supreme Court has suddenly turned squeamish about the public’s right to know. It ruled 4 to 3 this summer that even messages on government computers and email accounts might be kept secret if the government official was merely taking care of some untidy personal affairs — let’s say an illicit sexual affair with an official who was doing business with the county government. The court said a trial judge needed to examine the disputed personal emails in that or any other case to see if any of them could actually affect the public’s business.

The judge in that case, Mary Ann McGowan, looked at the steamy messages and said, yes, nearly every one of them affected public business in some way by the very fact that they were done on taxpayers’ equipment and time and the exchanges were between partners in government transactions. But the Supreme Court’s incongruous precedent still stands.
For once, we should look to Texas for ethical guidance.