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C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

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  1. […] argument sound familiar, doesn’t it? Gosh, I wonder what Ken Paxton will say. Also, it would be good to know how much […]