in Houston, Texas

Mayor Bill White kept his calendar, correspondence with developer hidden from public view

files/2008/09/billwhite.jpg
Wednesday, Apr 22, 2009, 04:53PM CST
By Rosanna Ruiz
Mayor Bill White has for more than two months hidden his calendar and his correspondence with a developer, but the attorney general says White must now release at least a portion of this information.

White argued to keep some of the records under wraps after Texas Watchdog requested them in January under the Texas Public Information Act. However, he hasn't released any of the records.

White

Texas Watchdog requested his 2008 calendar, as well as correspondence between White and developer Marvy Finger, whose firm built condominiums adjacent to a downtown park.

White declined to release the information citing privacy concerns and instead sought an attorney general's ruling. Other local and state leaders have made their calendars public following similar requests.

It is unclear whether White's stance centered on information found in his calendar, his communications or both. Texas Watchdog challenged White's position to the attorney general's office.

The mayor will abide by the AG's open records letter ruling, a mayor's office spokesman said.

Texas Watchdog sought communication related to a 12-acre park, which opened last year. Discovery Green is a private-public venture in which the city contributed more than half the land for the project and spent $7.9 million for the remaining space across from Houston's convention center. The city also created the Houston Downtown Park Corp., in which it will contribute $750,000 each year for maintenance of the park, according to Discovery Green's Web site.

In January, the Houston Chronicle reported that White had written an endorsement, on city letterhead, promoting Finger's One Park Place development. In response, White told the newspaper the letter was part of an agreement with Finger to promote the 37-story building. Finger, a White campaign contributor, said the letter was unsolicited.

It is unclear from the AG's ruling what information White must release regarding the project, but the AG's office determined White may exclude the personal contact information or other matters related to his private social affairs, unrelated to his official role as mayor.

White initially refused Texas Watchdog's request more than two months ago saying he did not want to reveal personal contact information of those with whom he met last year. The mayor declined last week when Texas Watchdog asked his office to release portions of his calendar he agreed were public.

Other high-level officials release calendars

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have all released their calendars, which are being reviewed by Texas Watchdog. (Check back at www.texaswatchdog.org for those documents.) The officials blacked out some information on the calendars which they apparently believed was not subject to public records law.

White had released his calendar several years ago but this time sought a formal legal ruling so he could redact the third-party contact information, a spokesman for the mayor said.

"This has to deal with privacy issues related to people who may be on the schedule," Pat Trahan, White's spokesman, said last week. "We have gone through this process before."

White had been advised by a city attorney not to release portions of the calendar until a ruling had been issued.

That stance, however, skirts Texas law regarding swift disclosure of public information, an attorney who is an expert on public records issues said.

Aleshire

"He shouldn't withhold the whole thing," said Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, of The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "That's not consistent with the statute. (Officials are) required to release any information they don't intend to ask the attorney general to withhold."

White, who has served as Houston's mayor for five years, is running for a U.S. Senate seat.

Contact Rosanna Ruiz at news@texaswatchdog.org or 713-980-9777.

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