Response to Cousar and SlusherJim Cousar, an attorney working for the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), and former councilmember and current city employee, Daryl Slusher published a guest editorial in the Austin Statesman opposing Prop. 1. Here is a response.
Slusher and Cousar most prominently argue that all e-mail would have to go online.
This is simply not true. The Amendment sets an overall policy goal of placing all public information online “as expeditiously as possible” and “to the greatest extent practical.” This goal is set in the framework of efficiency and the city’s own ongoing efforts to manage its business online. The City would determine what is "practical" based on budget, legal, and technical constraints.
The Amendment then sets out very specific measures. Two of these specific mandates directly address e-mail and read as follows:
“In order to better preserve written electronic communication for public disclosure, the City must establish a system that automatically archives all incoming and outgoing electronic communication that deals with City business to and from [top city officials].” (Section 3(c)(1))This second provision is a restatement of current Texas Public Information Act law. It was included because there is reason to believe that City officials are not retaining or producing this public information when it is requested as required by law.
“Public information also includes the following categories that must be produced in response to a public information request: . . . Email or other written electronic communication to or from a public official concerning City business is public information, including communications to or from privately owned email accounts or computers.” (Section 4(E))
These two provisions make clear that e-mail is to be preserved, not deleted, and produced when requested. It says nothing about placing email online. Further, the City’s own information officer has agreed that posting email online is “not practical” because of the cost and difficulty of screening email for various exceptions to public disclosure.
Cousar and Slusher also argued that the Open Government amendment would expose “informers” or whistleblowers. The amendment preserves all exceptions to disclosure under state and federal law except for a few, very specific “optional” exceptions that are circumscribed. Criminal investigation files, attorney-client and attorney work product files, personal privacy and personnel files retain all their protections, with the lone exception of making police misconduct records public to the same extent they are public at the Travis County sheriff’s office. Nothing in the amendment requires disclosure of the contents of conversations between anyone – meetings with top level city officials must be identified only by “subject.”
The City is fully capable of managing its internal HR investigations as well as external citizen complaints of possible wrongdoing within the framework of the amendment and without compromising privacy, security, or internal affairs.
Finally, to be clear, the City’s inflated cost estimate for implementing Prop. 1 was thrown out of the ballot language because City representatives admitted that the basis of the estimate (that literally all information had to go online in contradiction with privacy laws) was not reliable and was not required by the amendment. The City’s information officer has confirmed the estimate of $2-3 million for upfront implementation of the mandatory provisions of the amendment that was determined by the Liveable City independent study.
In short, this amendment will cost less, and do more for Austin.