By Joe Yerardi
Back in September, I filed a public records request with the City of San Antonio asking for their last five years of payroll data. When I received the responsive records earlier this month, I was surprised to find that the data did not include employee identification numbers.
As any data journalist worth their salt knows, employee identification numbers are the most reliable way to match individuals who appear in multiple records--both within the same table and across multiple tables. People change job titles. People change departments. They even change their names when they marry. But an employee ID number follows that employee from their first day of work until their last. Because of the way this data was formatted, I needed the IDs for matching individuals both within and across tables. So, I sent an email to the city's Finance Department, asking them to include the numbers.
I was surprised to receive an email in reply a couple days later in which one of the city's attorneys insisted that the ID numbers were exempt from disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act. The attorney pointed to a section in the Act that exempted any "access device" that "may be used to obtain money, goods, services, or another thing of value; or initiate a transfer of funds other than a transfer originated solely by paper instrument."
The city attorney specifically argued that, because certain city employees can use their ID numbers to access gasoline from a city gas pump for city vehicles, the IDs constituted such an "access device" and were thus exempt from disclosure. As I read the attorney's response, I was dismayed that the city was claiming the exemption but was confident that the Attorney General's office would not uphold such a withholding based on such a broad reading of the exemption.
Then, I ran a Google search for the AG's ruling that the city's attorney referenced in his response. When I found it, my confidence disappeared and my dismay turned to horror. In the October 30 ruling, the AG's office had upheld the withholding of employee ID numbers based on the cited exemption. In fact, the ruling had come about as the result of a public records request filed by one of my colleagues with the City of San Antonio seeking information relating to the Police Department's gang task force.
After speaking with an individual in the Finance Department, we were able to reach a compromise whereby the City would replace each employee ID with a string of meaningless but unique numbers, thereby achieving my desire for a unique identifier for the data while still withholding the actual employee ID numbers.
But even as I got what I wanted, this story doesn't have a happy ending so long as that AG's ruling remains on the books.
While the City was willing to work with me this time, that's no guarantee that other government agencies in Texas, once they learn of that ruling, will agree to any workaround that will preserve the function of employee IDs as unique identifiers. After speaking with an attorney for my newspaper, we decided not to challenge the City, concerned that two adverse Attorney General rulings would make winning any future lawsuit over the issue that much more difficult. Legislative lobbying during this year's legislative session seems like the best option to get the exemption narrowed. But for the time being, journalists in Texas operate under the shadow of an Attorney General's ruling that, if aggressively implemented, will seriously damage the ability of the press to serve as watchdogs of the public's money and as advocates for open and effective government.
Joe Yerardi is the data editor of the San Antonio Express-News in San Antonio, Texas.