in Houston, Texas
West Texas utility subject to public records law: AG
Tuesday, Oct 25, 2011, 02:03PM CST
By Steve Miller
natural gas flame

Win some, then hopefully win some more in the name of government transparency.

That’s the idea, anyway. This week we learned that the state Attorney General agreed with our argument that the Southwest Texas Municipal Gas Corporation is a taxpayer-funded operation fully subject to the laws and dictates of the Texas Public Information Act. 


The AG ruling is here


The utility had rebuffed part of our open records request in May, claiming it was not a public body. We filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office, arguing, with statutory evidence, that it was. 


And this month, the people over there in Alpine and Marfa can get the access they have been seeking.


It means that for some time, the board of the corporation, which is operated jointly by members of the city councils of Marfa and Alpine, has operated in violation of the law


The board would entertain public records requests, even discussing in public whether such requests should be honored. 


"There are no public tax funds/dollars involved with the corporation and never has been," we were told in one e-mail in May when we sought public records. "The corporation is operated entirely by proceeds earned in the sale of natural gas."


Many offshoot utilities and other quasi-governmental bodies argue that they aren't subject to open records law because they aren't funded by taxes, but that logic is flawed. Key to the AG ruling is this graph:

The precise manner of public funding is not the sole dispositive issue in determining whether a particular entity is subject to the Act. ...


Other aspects of a contract or relationship that involve the transfer of public funds between a private and a public entity must be considered in determining whether the private entity is a "governmental body" under the Act. For example, as noted above, a contract or relationship that involves public funds, and that indicates a common purpose or objective or that creates an agency-type relationship between a private entity and a public entity, will bring the private entity within the definition of a "governmental body" under section 552.003(1)(A)(xii) of the Government Code.


The overall nature of the relationship created by the contract is relevant in determining whether the private entity is so closely associated with the governmental body that the private entity falls within the Act.

Utilities have made such stands before and are generally shot down. Bryan Texas Utilities for months bucked the city council’s requests for salary data before abruptly caving.


On the heels of that, Senate Bill 1613 was passed last session in Austin, which makes it harder for public utilities to withhold information, forcing them to seek a ruling from the state Attorney General, just as other agencies must. When an agency fails to ask for a ruling, the information is presumed to be public and must be released.


We launched our quest after hearing from a number of residents in Alpine and Marfa, who were frustrated by the actions of the utility group.


“I’ve been saying it was a public body for a long time,” said Avinash Rangra, a former member of the gas corporation board. “We’re thankful for the AG ruling.”


***

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


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Photo of a gas flame from the website of the California Energy Commission.

Comments
Peggy Venable
Tuesday, 10/25/2011 - 02:23PM

way to go!!!

jack d. mcnamara
Wednesday, 10/26/2011 - 01:05PM

why didn't you mention the work of pete smyke? the effort to notify the ag was almost entirely pete's initiative. and for the open gummint laws to be effective there has to be citizen participation, which a citizen contributes without the promise of attorney's fees.

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