in Houston, Texas
Texas Watchdog wants to help you get information from government. Here's how
Monday, Mar 16, 2009, 06:34PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
Maybe you saw our story today about state Sen. Rodney Ellis' work as a subcontractor for the Houston school system. Maybe you saw our recent story about Sen. Royce West pushing for public contracts to be subject to less review. Or maybe you saw our story about former state Rep. Fred Hill becoming a lobbyist for city and county governments.

Did you know that you could find out information like that, too?

You can -- by using public records laws.

This week is national Sunshine Week -- and today, Monday, March 16, is National Freedom of Information Day, celebrated on the birthday of Bill of Rights author James Madison. So we wanted to remind everyone that we have a standing offer of help and training to Texas bloggers, citizen-journalists, and activists of all causes and political persuasions who are trying to find out what their government agencies are up to.

We enjoyed getting to know several Houston-area bloggers at a meet-up we put on here earlier this year. We’re planning another one in April, details TBD. If you'd like to come or have questions or ideas, let us know in the comments below or e-mail leeann@texaswatchdog.org.

We’re also available by phone or e-mail — at 713-980-9777 and leeann@texaswatchdog.org — to help folks needing information from local or state government. Have you filed a public records request and been stonewalled? Do you have a question for a public official but need help getting the answer? Or is there a government program or agency you would like to spotlight or investigate on your blog?

We’d like to assist you any way we can:

~ In getting public information.

~ In figuring out how to share it via your blog.

~ In working with you to make local and state government more open and accountable to the public.

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Comments
Suzette Watkins
Monday, 03/16/2009 - 08:06PM

YES! I will surely take you up on your offer of help. I had to get the DA\'s office to help me get some information from Ft. Worth\'s Housing Dept., and I\'ve filed for my City Council Rep.\'s expense records and the City of Ft. Worth waits until the 10th day then turns it over the Attorney General stating they think the info. is exempt from public disclosure. Excuse me, but anytime a public official is spending tax dollars, I believe that should be readily available for all to see. Also my Council Rep had a Town Hall meeting inwhich she charged some expenses to her Campaign Finance Report which made it a Campaign Event. I am trying to find out if all of the City employees that worked that Town Hall were paid or did they volunteer their time? The City of Ft. Worth has sent the PI request to the State Atty. General saying that info. is exempt! I\'m not understanding!! Feel Free to contact me or I\'ll call you soon. Thank you for all you do for the people! These are some of the exact reasons why I am running against my opponent and for the people of this District and City. Public Information is public information. What\'s all the hiding about?

Jennifer Peebles
Saturday, 03/21/2009 - 06:25PM

Suzette,

Some thoughts off the top of my head:

Generally speaking, I would think that expense records of a city councilmember would be public. Now, there could be certain information on the expense records that the city is seeking to withhold -- such as the person's Social Security number, I'm guessing? -- and that could be what the city is asking the attorney general about. (But the presence of confidential information on the paper form does not mean the city can withhold the entire record; it only means the city would have to black out the private information with a marker before it gives you a copy. )

Also -- again, generally speaking, not knowing all the details -- I would tend to think records indicating whether city workers were paid for their time at a certain event would be public record.

Now, if the city has punted to the AG on these issues, you should have gotten in the mail from the city a copy of the letter that it sent to the AG, which should spell out the grounds on which the city is seeking to withhold the information. That might tell us more.

Keep in mind, under the law, you have a right to write to the AG to argue why the city should be required to make the information public. (I've had to write a handful of those letters myself in the past several weeks.) The AG is generally supposed to get back to you within about 45 days.

Shoot me an e-mail at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org and we can talk more.

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