Water district wants man to un-publish information the district should have redacted in response to records request

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A Montgomery County man has been threatened with legal action by the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District after he found a way to read redacted information on a letter the district claims is confidential.

James Ridgeway Jr., an employee of the district from 2015 to 2018, filed a public records request in December for some documents related to a recent personnel change at the district.

The district claimed the documents were not subject to the open records process.

To withhold requested records, the district must send a letter to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which rules on whether the records must be released. The state’s open records law also requires the entity challenging the request to send the requestor a copy of its letter to the AG. The agency seeking to withhold information may redact information that it sends to the AG’s office to make its case for withholding the records.

Ridgeway, though, figured out a way to remove the redactions and posted the unredacted letter on his Facebook page. (See before and after letters here. See full letter from Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to AG seeking to withhold here.)

In a statement cited by a local newspaper, the district claims Ridgeway used “advanced technical techniques” to remove the blacked out sections.

However, Ridgway insists he has no magic unredacting machine, a device that would no doubt be coveted by journalists, gadflies and publicly-minded mischief-makers around the world.

“There’s no secret to what I did,” Ridgeway told The Texas Monitor. “Normally, agencies redact a document and then scan [the redacted version]and send it. In this case, I was looking at it and highlighted the text.”

The words that he – and the water district – thought had been removed appeared when highlighted.

“I realized that it wasn’t properly redacted,” he said. The discovery “was an accident.”

The district sent Ridgeway a letter on Jan. 31, demanding he remove the unredacted letter, which mentions pending litigation that could involve the district, from his Facebook page. 

 “As a requestor under the Public Information Act, you are required to comply with the processes and procedures under the Act, violations of which are subject to civil and/or criminal penalties,” the letter says. “You are hereby requested to remove the confidential information from all social media websites … .”

It also alleges that he “unredacted” information known to be confidential.

Ridgeway said he is not going to remove the document. He didn’t alter the letter and claims it was never really redacted since he could so easily read what it said.

“I think this is a dangerous precedent, this move to intimidate me,” he said. “If someone wants to put in a request and reads about this, this would seem to deter them.”

 Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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