in Houston, Texas
TxDOT refuses to release property details in land deal
Thursday, Aug 12, 2010, 02:22PM CST
By Steve Miller

 

The Texas Department of Transportation is buying $8.2 million worth of properties that are obstructing highway development in El Paso. But TxDOT is trying to keep private the names of those affected property owners, the El Paso Times reports.

 “In an open-records request, the Times sought identities of the property owners, but TxDOT officials filed an appeal with the Texas attorney general to block release of those records.

 

State officials said they were still negotiating some purchases and cited an exception to the open-records law. It says details about land purchases can be withheld by a public entity until a sale is final.”

sold sign
The records might be available via the El Paso County Appraisal District, although getting the exact properties for the so-called East Side Spaghetti Bowl will be difficult unless one has a good map. Door knocking seems the only way to extract this very public information. But TxDOT offers an explanation.

"'The purpose of this exception is to prevent speculation from inflating prices when the expenditure of public funds is involved,' TxDOT lawyer Sharon Alexander said in a letter to the Times and the attorney general. 'Real estate can be very expensive, and TxDOT has the obligation to protect taxpayer money.'

TxDOT officials would not say from whom they have bought land. But, they said, they have already spent $5.5 million of the $8.2 million allocated for property."

Property appraisals can be kept secret if disclosure would harm "the governmental body's negotiating position" in obtaining other properties for the same project, according to the attorney general's Public Information Handbook. Even so, the properties' location is only protected up to a point and can't be withheld after "the public announcement of the project."

 

TxDOT has been obscuring information for some time. Check this 2007 article in the Oak Hill Gazette in which the same TxDOT lawyer, Sharon Alexander, maintains that plans for a highway are not public records. Ditto in Houston the same year.

 

Alexander has been defeated before in her assault against transparency. It appears she will continue to battle for state business in private.


Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

 

Photo of a 'sold' sign by flickr user el clinto, used via a Creative Commons license.

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