Our state’s Public Information Act wouldn’t be worth much if governmental bodies did not suffer any consequences for purposely ignoring valid information requests from the public or were not penalized for intentionally providing inadequate responses.
If, for instance, a newspaper requested the billing records of private attorneys hired to represent a county government in a suit against opioid manufacturers and distributors and the county said only that it had “no responsive document,” there would be little incentive for public officials to comply with such requests and no point in making them.
Moreover, if such a county truly has “no responsive document” relating to the time and expenses being recorded by attorneys working on its behalf, that would seem to mean that it’s not doing due diligence in monitoring the financial obligations it’s incurring on behalf of the taxpayers.
Nevertheless, “no responsive document” is the answer Legal Newsline received to its request for the billing records of the private attorneys retained by Delta County to represent it in an opioid lawsuit.
The Public Information Act also provides for appeal to a higher authority when governmental bodies fail or refuse to comply with the provisions of the law.
Following its unsatisfactory response to the request from Legal Newsline, Delta County was notified by the Texas Attorney General’s Office that it had exceeded the 31-day deadline for either releasing the billing records of its outside lawyers or providing a detailed cost estimate for providing that information – and had four days to correct that violation.
Delta County Attorney Jay Garrett has since communicated to Legal Newsline that a letter detailing the costs of supplying the requested records is “en route,” but he warned that the County may charge as much as $18,000 for providing the records.
Exorbitant assessments of anticipated compliance costs also can be appealed to the AG’s office, since the law provides that such charges must be reasonable.
When county officials play games like this, county residents should call them on it The public has a right to public information and any fees for getting that information should be minimal or not at all.