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Open records quiz: Can officials question your motives and withhold documents from you?

County Commissioner Tommy AdkissonCheck out this open-records story by Josh Baugh: A Bexar County official wants to sue the attorney general in an effort to withhold e-mails from the San Antonio Express-News — because the official believes the newspaper is biased:

Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson refuses to comply with a Texas attorney general’s ruling that ordered him to release e-mails in his private accounts that contain public information. This week he instructed the Bexar County district attorney’s office to sue the AG.

The San Antonio Express-News submitted an open-records request under the Texas Public Information Act on Feb. 17, seeking all e-mails between Adkisson and grass-roots toll opponent Terri Hall regarding business of Bexar County and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, of which Adkisson is chairman.

The request sought e-mail correspondence from Adkisson’s county-provided e-mail address as well as from two private accounts he maintains. The newspaper is seeking the e-mails because they would offer insight into Adkisson’s management style at the MPO.

The story raises two issues that ought to trouble open-records advocates:

One is that public officials are keenly aware that their government e-mails are public documents, and they are turning to private e-mail accounts to conduct government business.

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The other is Adkisson’s explanation for seeking to withhold his e-mails from the newspaper: He believes the Express-News is biased and has a pro-toll road agenda.

Even if Adkisson’s claim were true, the point is irrelevant when it comes to public information. In Texas, a government record is either public, or it isn’t. In order for an agency to withhold a record, it must cite a legal exemption. For example, a section of the Texas Public Information Act says investigative files of law enforcement agencies don’t have to be made public.

The motives of the person requesting the information has no bearing on whether a document is public. In fact, under the law, officials aren’t even supposed to ask why someone wants the information. Otherwise, government officials could withhold everything from the public simply by saying they don’t trust the people asking for the information. Or they could play favorites and give information to preferred journalists and bloggers.

So now the county is going to spend taxpayer money on a legal effort to withhold information from taxpayers. Maybe Josh can find out how much money the county will spend on the case — assuming no one questions his motives for asking.