The decision of District Court Judge Scott Jenkins upholds a 2008 state attorney general's opinion that the partnership receives public money for general support rather than for specific contracted duties, making it a governmental entity.
The case stems from a records request in 2008 by Jim Jenkins, of Spring, who became curious after seeing money pass between The Woodlands and the partnership. The resident is not related to the judge.
The request sought access to the partnership’s check register. The partnership asserted that it was not a government body subject to the public information act.
Now, a judge has said it is.
“You simply don’t see these kinds of rulings very often," said Paul Watler, a media lawyer and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Statistically, I’d say more courts have found entities not to be government bodies. It’s an interesting development worth paying attention to.”
Judge Jenkins in his decision cited the wording in the contract between the city of Houston and the partnership, which he ruled defined the work of the partnership as that of an agent carrying out the duties of the city, rather than as a service provider.
The judge noted the contract said, for example, “the partnership will execute the 10-yr strategic plan for the industry cluster groups …identified in the Mayor’s Task Force Report on Economic Development.”
The judge also pointed to other language that he felt was specific, such as, “the Partnership will manage the city’s responsibilities” for an upcoming event.
CASE COULD SET PRECEDENT
“The ruling is a scary precedent for any individual or business that does contract work with the government,” Aleshire said. “If you can go in and find any sentence in a 30- or 40-page contract, then that is misrepresenting the intention of the arrangement.”
He pointed out that five years ago, another judge, Stephen Yelenosky, ruled on what he felt was a similar case regarding the chamber of commerce in Arlington. Yelenosky ruled that the chamber was not a governmental body.
But Yelenosky also wrote he was “surprised that there are so few Texas state court cases construing 'governmental body' under the Public Information Act and none directly on point.”
Aleshire agreed and said the Greater Houston Partnership case could set a precedent. He added that the legislature could play a role in clarifying the language in the Texas Public Information Act regarding what defines a governmental body subject to open records requests.
“If we win this case, all we’ve done is protect the extremely private records of a private entity," he said.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo of a checkbook by flickr user heidielliott, used via a Creative Commons license.