in Houston, Texas

The roadblocks to getting public records in Dallas

Monday, May 11, 2009, 04:08PM CST
By Matt Pulle & Rosanna Ruiz
Continued from page 1.

paperwork

Last week, Texas Watchdog tried to make copies of the Dallas county judge and commissioners' financial statements. The forms are vital public records that can alert the public that an official has ownership in a company that might be doing business with county government, or that an official has voted on a measure affecting her husband's company, or any number of other scenarios dealing with conflicts of interest. The latest batch of financial statements were due April 30.

On Tuesday, we called the Dallas County clerk's office and were told we could pick up the forms when we arrived. Of course, it's never that easy in Texas, and our experience would reflect how difficult it can be to retrieve basic information about elected officials.

It started innocently enough: We walked into the clerk's office, located on the third floor of the tall, gray Records Building on Main Street, and a friendly woman at the front desk asked what we needed. After we told her, a more officious-sounding staffer promptly came forward from the back offices and introduced herself. She asked again what we were looking for, and after we repeated our request (for the third time counting the phone call), the two employees slipped into an office and closed the door.

After about five minutes, the two women emerged from the office and made us write on a sheet of paper what we were requesting and "who we were with." That second request -- to identify our affiliation -- has always struck Texas Watchdog as rather irksome. What if I'm Joe Citizen with no one, but myself? And why should the official know which Joe Citizen is examining the form? But in the interest of being polite, we did what we were told.

The employees told us our request then had to be reviewed by Bob Schell, the chief of the Dallas County District Attorney's civil division. There's really no reason for this extra step - other than to construct another roadblock to obtaining government documents.

The commissioners' financial statements are public record. That's why they are filled out in the first place: to inform the public. Presumably, one of the top government attorneys in the county didn't go to law school to learn that fact.

Nearly a week after Texas Watchdog asked for known public records, we still haven't received word from the county on when they would be available. Even worse, the Dallas County clerk's office initially told us that copies would be $1 per page, which would run the tab up to $150 for just one set of public records.

Interestingly, the Dallas County election commission charges the same fee. Can they really charge that much?

Here's where the law gets difficult

coinstacks

The Texas attorney general's office says local government bodies can't charge more than 10 cents a page for simple copies and printouts, which is what we were asking for. Additional charges are possible for large requests.

But Schell told us a county clerk's office is exempted from those rules.

Later that afternoon, Schell e-mailed us a copy of the statute: Texas Local Government Code 118.011, which indeed allows the county clerk's office to charge 10 times more than any other public agency does for paper records.

What about the election commission, which charges us $1 a page for campaign finance records? Schell referred us to pages 47 through 54 of the Texas attorney general's 2008 Public Information Handbook, but we could find nothing in that section that referred to the commission itself. We called the attorney general's office for clarification, where we were told that only the county treasurer, district and county clerk can charge the higher fee for public records they maintain; everyone else, 10 cents.

In any case, the clerk's office doesn't have to charge the maximum the law allows. It is a matter of the official's discretion. Couldn't the clerk opt to make it less prohibitive for his own constituents to pick up public records?

"Because of the amount of paper and toner that we use," says Dallas County Clerk John W. Warren. "We have to pay for that someway."

Still? Isn't $1 per page excessive?

Factoring in paper and cartridges, one page could cost as little as 7 cents, a quick calculation via OfficeDepot.com confirms. And that doesn't count the bulk purchasing power of governments, who may receive supplies cheaper because they buy lots of them.

By our math, Warren's marking up his costs 1,300 percent. In another life, he must have sold real estate in Phoenix.

County clerk may make records available online


Ultimately, Warren offered to scan the records we're looking for and give it to us on a disk -- for free. He also said he's looking into computer software that would allow him to post many of his records on the clerk's Web site.

We had a slightly more positive experience with the Dallas city secretary's office when we asked for copies of the personal financial statements of all 14 council members and the mayor.

Initially, we were told to return later in the week because they had to redact information from the documents. Two days later, a staffer called us and said she had made a mistake and that we could review and copy the statements in their raw form. Dallas city secretary Deborah Watkins did not return phone calls left Thursday about why her office changed its mind.

Still, the city of Dallas, strange as it sounds to those of us who live here, may actually be the role model in this tale when it comes to open government.

CONTINUES


> Click here to read about the city of Houston and Harris County's stance that certain information on disclosure forms need not be disclosed. On Page 3.

Photo of paperwork by flickr user kozumel, used via a Creative Commons license.

Photo of stacks of coins by flickr user Darren Hester, used via a Creative Commons license.
Comments
Twisted Dog
Tuesday, 05/12/2009 - 11:18AM

There isn\'t any rhyme or reason to records request charges at any level in Texas. The SOS charges a buck a record for online searches, although they use no toner, paper or copy machines to give you the results. Scam.

Jennifer Peebles
Tuesday, 05/12/2009 - 11:38AM

Twisted Dog,

Welcome to our site! Thank you for reading us and posting here. :)

Take care,

Jennifer P.

jennifer@texaswatchdog.org

paul platano
Wednesday, 02/16/2011 - 12:44PM

The public information act says the government has to let you copy. Scanning is one form of scanning.

Bringing your own $50 copier is another way. Haddasah from the TX attorney offices gives seminars to county clerks and has told the clerks they have to let the public copy records.

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