in Houston, Texas
You have a right to public records; fight back against poorly trained bureaucrats
Thursday, May 17, 2012, 02:35PM CST
By Steve Miller
officespace

Campaign finance reports can be a treasure of information about a candidate at any level of office. Almost across the board, if you run for an elected office, you have to file the form, which details your donors and your expenditures.

The forms are generally kept by the governmental body that holds the election. Most school districts keep their board member filings. The county elections office will have many of the county offices, from commissioner and justices of the peace to the county clerk. In some cases, the clerk may keep the records. State candidates file theirs with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Ask around before you go to make sure. Start at the county elections office.

There can be problems, though, in gaining access to these forms.

We recently went to the offices of the Tarrant Regional Water District and asked to inspect the campaign finance forms for board candidates. The receptionist told us, yes, they had the reports. But the person who was in charge of such things, someone named Rachel, was out of the office. I advised that I did need access to these in accordance with the law.

The burden is on that body to make arrangements to make these available to the public. Rachel was reached on her cell phone and told me I would have to file an open records request. That was incorrect; no open records request is needed.  We told her we were only in town for the week and wanted to see the records now. A request would wind through legal and would give the district an opportunity to stall, perhaps by asking questions for “clarity.” It’s a common practice often designed to force the public to give up.

Rachel said she would mail the records to us, confirming that strategy.

We contacted the district’s custodian of records and its legal counsel to advise of Rachel’s mistake and attempt to thwart the public’s inspection of these records. In the letter, we cited two pieces of law, both from the Texas Election Code.

The first was 1.012:

PUBLIC INSPECTION OF ELECTION RECORDS.  (a) Subject to Subsection (b), an election record that is public information shall be made available to the public during the regular business hours of the record's custodian.

(b)  For the purpose of safeguarding the election records or economizing the custodian's time, the custodian may adopt reasonable rules limiting public access.

 

We also cited 254.0402, which actually makes it clear that an open records request is not needed to examine the finance reports.

PUBLIC INSPECTION OF REPORTS. (a) Notwithstanding Section 552.222(a), Government Code, the authority with whom a report is filed under this chapter may not require a person examining the report to provide any information or identification.

The office was kindly accommodating after our note, and we got our documents.

That said, no apology was given for the attempt to turn back the public. Ignorance, we’ve heard, is no excuse.

One more thing; Had we actually accommodated Rachel and filed an open records request, access to those forms would have had to be given “promptly,” seeing that the receptionist already confirmed that the records were on premises.

The state Attorney general’s Web site states, “the governmental body must "promptly" produce public information in response to your request. "Promptly" means that a governmental body may take a reasonable amount of time to produce the information, which varies depending on the facts in each case. The amount of information you have requested is highly relevant to what makes for a reasonable response time.”

The district would have drawn a complaint for withholding the records.

These public records and campaign finance reports enable an informed electorate. Don’t let poorly trained bureaucrats deter you from getting the information you need.

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

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Photo of office bureaucrat Milton from the 1999 movie 'Office Space.'

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