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One less worry in the Lone Star State

From the Spring 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9. By Wanda Garner Cash Liz Smith,…

From the Spring 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

By Wanda Garner Cash

Liz Smith, the Texas-born columnist, is concerned about the overall perception of her home state.

In an interview with Texas Monthly magazine, Smith said she worries that people get the wrong impression of the Lone Star State when they buy into the broad stereotypes of popular culture. Admittedly, some stereotypes are deserved, even encouraged by the foibles and fables we Texans create. And from her East Coast perspective, Smith is probably right to fret about how the world sees Texas.

Closer to home, my friend Lynn Brisendine, publisher of The Brownfield News &#151 circulation 2,664 &#151 also worries that there’s a lot not to like about our state. “We’re number last,” he said in a recent column, scolding the Texas Legislature for the state’s dismal record on public education, uninsured children and infant health.

Although Texas strives to rise from those notoriously low rankings, we’re doing comparatively well when it comes to public access and open government.

As with most public policy issues, the success stories in open government in Texas were achieved through aggressive citizen advocacy and responsive leaders, including a handful of key legislators and more specifically, the current attorney general and his immediate predecessor.

Indeed, watching Sen. John Cornyn’s open government leadership in Congress harkens to his similar reform efforts as Texas attorney general from 1999 to 2002. His successor, Greg Abbott, is achieving even greater government openness, building on Cornyn’s solid groundwork for access.

The awakening scrutiny of how Texas governmental bodies conduct public business and spend taxpayer dollars began more than three decades ago. In the wake of a banking scandal that delivered prison sentences to some state lawmakers, the Legislature in 1973 passed what is now called the Texas Public Information Act. It defined and codified public access to public records and, with the open meetings law, gave Texans greater control over government.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas was founded the same year to educate and promote the rights and responsibilities of access to public records and meetings. In the ensuing years, the oversight and enforcement of public access laws waxed and waned, largely dependent on the personal interest and commitment of the attorney general.

But during Cornyn’s tenure as attorney general, citizens saw great gains in public access as Cornyn kept his campaign pledge to keep Texas government open to the governed.

Shortly after he took office in January 1999, Cornyn convened an open government leadership summit to affirm his intentions and to address what he identified as an enforcement lapse in the state’s Public Information Act.

The summit attracted the usual stakeholders: public interest groups, consumer advocates, members of press associations and representatives from the FOI Foundation, the state’s foremost First Amendment group. But the true genius of the summit was the diversity of Cornyn’s invitation list, which brought to the table new faces not normally known for their interest in promoting public access.

To drive home his point and to avoid preaching to the choir of open government believers, Cornyn invited typical, if unintentional, violators of the state’s access laws: representatives of public education, sheriffs departments, counties and city governments, and record keepers such as the association of district and county clerks, the Texas Municipal League and the Texas Association of School Boards.

Cornyn orchestrated the summit as a round table of sorts, where all sides could vent their positions and frustrations about open government compliance. The attorney general heard them out and undertook some remarkable reforms in enforcement, compliance and notably, education.

Cornyn believed open government violations occur because people don’t know the law. So he instituted a toll-free FOI hotline at the AG’s office, organized regional open government seminars for elected officials, upgraded the AG’s Web site and distributed a list of do’s and don’ts to clarify open records questions and help educate government officials about their responsibilities under the law.

He also stepped up enforcement action against violators. To reduce time spent on open record opinions, Cornyn created a committee in the attorney general’s office to quickly screen out requests for records that are clearly public.

Today, Cornyn is trying to transplant that access culture change to Washington. Texas reforms echo throughout Cornyn’s proposed changes to the federal Freedom of Information Act: stricter deadlines for answering requests for information, a hotline to track open records requests and a third-party review of request denials and penalties for improperly denying government records.

Cornyn successfully navigated the political seas of public access, notoriously ruling against the University of Texas System’s secretive investment policies and against then-Gov. George W. Bush’s desire to exempt his gubernatorial papers from the state’s Public Information Act.

In Washington, Cornyn acknowledges, politics and everything else is vastly different from Texas. And regardless of being in the majority, getting the FOIA reforms passed will be a formidable struggle. But if the former freedom fighter from the Lone Star State succeeds, Americans will be better off &#151 and Liz Smith and Lynn Brisendine will have one less thing to worry about.

Wanda Garner Cash is editor and publisher of The (Texas) Baytown Sun. She is president of the Texas Press Association and immediate past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.