Recent Open Government Developments in the Third Court of Appeals
The Austin Court of Appeals recently addressed open government issues in two separate cases involving governmental entities. The first case of interest is York v. Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corp., 408 S.W.3d 677 (Tex. App.—Austin 2013). This case involves the interplay between the Texas Public Information Act (PIA) and the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). The Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation (TGSL) is a public non-profit corporation that is subject to both the PIA and TOMA. In 2011, attorney Larry York submitted a PIA request to TGSL. TGSL sought a decision from the attorney general that it could withhold certain records. The attorney general concluded that TGSL must disclose virtually all of the records it sought to withhold. TGSL then filed suit against the attorney general, and York intervened seeking a declaratory judgment. The district court held that TGSL was required to disclose minutes from the open meetings of its board of directors; however, they could withhold certain documents that were attached to those minutes. TGSL appealed arguing that none of the records at issue were subject to disclosure.
The Austin Court of Appeals concluded that the PIA exceptions do not limit an entity’s obligation under the TOMA to disclose its “minutes” when requested. Additionally, the TOMA does not define the term “minutes.” The court then states that the minutes—as well as the attachments to the minutes—fall within the definition of “minutes” and include exhibits that are referenced in and attached to the minutes. Therefore, the court held that TGSL must disclose to York its board meeting minutes, including any attachments or exhibits.
The second case deals with an open records request for recordings from closed meetings. In Riley v. Commissioners Court of Blanco County, the Commissioners Court of Blanco County held three closed meetings to decide whether or not to purchase property in Johnson City, Texas. No. 03-11-00276-CV, 2013 WL 2348272 (Tex. App.—Austin May 23, 2013). Following the meetings, the commissioners court adopted a resolution in an open meeting to authorize the purchase of the property. Subsequent to the passage of the resolution, the plaintiff, Tex Riley, filed an open records request asking for copies of the recordings of the three closed meetings. This request was denied. In response to the denial, Riley filed a lawsuit against the commissioners court alleging violations of the TOMA and requesting that copies of the closed meeting recordings be made available to him. The district court dismissed Riley’s claims and Riley appealed the decision.
The Austin Court of Appeals stated that the prohibition against filing suit against a government entity does not apply when the legislature has waived the entity’s immunity. The TOMA waives immunity for violations of the TOMA and authorizes suits against governmental entities. The court concluded that the district court erred in dismissing Riley’s claims, but also held that the declaratory judgment action Riley sought was redundant of the relief sought under the TOMA. The Austin Court of Appeals denied the motion for rehearing, and the Texas Supreme Court denied the petition for review. The case has been remanded back to the district court, and the Texas Municipal League will continue to monitor this case.