in Houston, Texas
Bid for secrecy? Travis County hospital district sets up nonprofit
Monday, Jan 07, 2013, 11:38AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
hand

Having endured those galling laws requiring tax increases be voted on in public, the Travis County hospital district would like to get down to the business of spending your $54 million without your help, thank you.

The district might have preferred not to tell you how they plan to do it had the Austin American-Statesman not made its usual, irksome inquiries.

You see, rather than distribute your property tax increase and as much as $76 million more in matching federal tax money a year through its own board, subject to the nettlesome state Open Meetings Act, the district established a nonprofit Central Health Collaborative, the Statesman is reporting.

Such a nonprofit is not subject to the Open Meetings Act because it isn’t a government body, according to Beth Devery, who offered her opinion as an attorney for the taxpayer-supported government body known as Travis County.

Devery is also the lawyer for the Central Health Collaborative.

Travis County taxpayers might not have gotten mixed up in all this secret medical business had county voters in November not handily passed Proposition 1.

Ostensibly a referendum on establishing a new medical school for the University of Texas in Austin, voters also were agreeing to nearly triple for the average homeowner taxes to support health care for the indigent in 2014.

That tax increase makes Travis County eligible for as much as $76 million a year in more-than-matching federal funds.

This funding is a small tributary to a roiling pool of medical and medical school funding with sources that had to be wrenched out of the University of Texas System by open records requests this past summer.

Creating and running the medical school is estimated to cost $4.1 billion in the first 12 years. The university system expected $420 million of that total to come from Central Health Collaborative.

The Collaborative is supposed to assist Seton Healthcare Family, the local hospital group pledging $1.9 billion over 12 years for the medical school, in finding a location for a new teaching hospital. And later, enter into a contract for health care services through the medical school.

Just how the Collaborative will spend your money might or might not be a matter of public record. The Collaborative hasn’t yet decided whether to hold its meetings in public or in secret, Christie Garbe, vice president of planning and communications, told the Statesman.

The hospital district board spent almost half of its meeting time last year in secret, the paper reports.

Joseph Larsen, a Houston lawyer and Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, told the Statesman the nonprofit would be better off operating more publicly.

Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer who worked on the the current open meetings laws when they were drafted in the 1970s, said had he known the Collaborative’s meetings would be secret he would not have voted for Proposition 1.

“We are basically contracting away the right to information that the public ought to have,” Wood told the paper. “If you’re spending that kind of money, we want to know everything about it.”

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo by flickr user Jose Goulao, used via a Creative Commons license.

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City officials in Texas take open meetings challenge to Supreme Court
Tuesday, Nov 06, 2012, 10:20AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Jimmy Stewart

You knew they would. We said they would. The Texas city officials who continue to insist the Texas Open Meetings Act is unconstitutional are going to the Supreme Court.

William McKamie, one of the attorneys representing the group we fondly refer to as the Furtive Fifteen, told the Amarillo Globe-News the case belonged in the hands of the “guardians of the First Amendment.”

There is no guarantee the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, and from the rulings in every lower court, as faithfully reported for more than a year-and-a-half  by your Texas Watchdog, the case more appropriately belongs in Sunday night’s recycling.

The courts have consistently upheld a 37-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Junell.

To recap once again, knowing full well there are 15 people in Texas who never tire of the story, city officials from across the state filed suit in 2009 contending the Texas Open Meetings Act restricted what they could say in public, violating their First Amendment rights.

In late September the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion that the Open Meetings Act is written to insure the public’s business will be done in public. Not exactly what the Furtives had in mind.

Former Texas Solicitor General James Ho, who represented the state when the suit was originally filed, told the Globe-News what mostly everyone but the Furtives and their lawyers are well aware of.

“Every court in the country to have ever faced a First Amendment challenge to an Open Meetings Act law has rejected the challenge and upheld the law,” Ho said.

Should it happen again, expect the Furtives to huddle up with their attorney, take in another viewing of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and then file a request to start all over again in District Court.

As Jefferson Smith said, just before passing out on a bed of telegraph wires, “Somebody’ll listen to me, sss...”

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the 1939 classic directed by Frank Capra.

Tarrant Appraisal District regularly violates state’s open meetings law: Star-Telegram
Monday, Jul 11, 2011, 02:36PM CST
By Kevin Lee
magnifying glass

The Tarrant Appraisal District’s board of directors has repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to give enough advanced notice of its public meetings, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The state’s open meetings law requires government bodies to post meeting notices at least 72 hours in advance, but the Star-Telegram reported Saturday the district missed that deadline 10 times over the last year.

“When you abridge the amount of notice you give, you are basically abridging the right of participation,” Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney and a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the newspaper.

The district’s Executive Director and Chief Appraiser Jeffery Law said he was “shocked” to hear of the frequent violations and vowed to correct the problem.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of magnifying glass by flickr user miletbaker, used via a Creative Commons license.
Transparency talk in Colleyville, Texas closed to public
Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011, 01:55PM CST
By Kevin Lee
closed

City council members in Colleyville, northeast of Fort Worth, will hear tonight about the state’s open meetings and public information laws - in a session closed to the public.

The city council is keeping the discussion with Colleyville City Attorney Matthew Boyle closed because Boyle will be providing “confidential legal advice,” a Colleyville spokeswoman told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The state’s Open Meetings Act is meant to ensure that officials make decisions in an open and transparent manner. But the act has exceptions that allow for closed meetings, like the exception for officials to confer with the government body’s attorney in some cases. Officials may also shut out the public in certain cases involving personnel matters and real estate. Both are cited ahead of the council’s executive session.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of 'closed' sign by flickr user tonx, used via a Creative Commons license.
Killeen City Council approves $750,000 buyout for City Manager Connie Green - $350,000 more than severance agreement stipulated
Friday, Apr 08, 2011, 01:24PM CST
By Steve Miller
cash

The city manager in Killeen got the boot last week but took home a nice consolation prize: $750,000 for his trouble, about $350,000 more than his severance agreement called for.
 
Connie Green was shown the door during a March 29 meeting after the city council voted 4-3 to hand over three-quarters of a million to Green, whose annual salary was $195,000.
 
According to a story in the Killeen Daily Herald, “Green's contract requires the city pay Green two years of salary and benefits, which would be at least $400,000.”

Killeen Mayor Tim Hancock said the payment “was in the best interest of the future of the organization and the community.”
 
Not all the community believes the spin. A cadre of outraged locals want to recall the City Council, an uphill effort that will require organizer Jonathan Okray to collect within a month 1,050 signatures on seven petitions, one for every member.
 
From the Daily Herald:
Okray said he called all seven council members…seeking explanation for the buyout.
 
"The resounding thing I heard was 'we were not on the council at the time Mr. Green's contract was drafted'; however, there is no responsibility or accountability to the citizens of Killeen," Okray said.
The situation surrounding the Green firing and his payment is blurry. He either resigned or was placed on leave earlier in March. The city has been secretive about the circumstances, leaving the public in the dark.
Green's buyout agreement stipulates that neither side shall seek litigation against the other, making finding the truth in allegations that much harder.

Green has accused (Councilman Larry Cole) of violating the Open Meetings Act by sending secretive e-mails, while Cole says this whole thing began because of dirt that resurfaced about Green.
Cole was talking about a recent public records request filed by city employees for documents pertaining to a 2006 sexual harassment lawsuit against the city.

“She filed charges against the city of Killeen,” Green has said of the suit. “I did absolutely nothing wrong, and the City Council reviewed it. They voted such.”

***

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


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Photo of money by flickr user stevelyon, used via a Creative Commons license.

Local Texas elected officials: Open Meetings Act makes our jobs tougher
Wednesday, Nov 24, 2010, 12:00PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
gavel

Oh, I get it. Having politicians conduct their business in public actually limits free speech. Do you mind giving me that again, real slowly?

 

All right, once again from the top. More than a dozen elected officials from four Texas cities testified Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Austin that a lot of the important stuff in the Texas Open Meetings Act ought to be gotten rid of because their fear of violating the act makes their jobs tougher, according to an eye-opening story in the Austin American-Statesman.


These paragons of public virtue told U.S. District Judge Robert Junell the Open Meetings Act, which provides for jail time and fines to violators, petrifies them into deleting voter e-mails, refusing to take calls from constituents and talking amongst themselves about important city business. Other than neglecting the people who put them into office, it sounds like the Open Meetings Act is working just the way it was intended.


Junell was patient, listening to this testimony, until Rod Ponton, the attorney for these put-upon public officials, suggested that not being able to discuss public business in private constituted self-censorship and a violation of the First Amendment.


"Nobody limits what they have to say," Junell told Ponton, interrupting him. Public officials, Junell said, may freely address constituents or the media about policy, a pending vote "or whatever they want."

Junell has experience with this questionable line of reasoning. In a similar legal challenge in 2006, Junell ruled the Open Meetings Act is a sound way to insure that government business is open to the public and is not a violation of the First Amendment. A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed Junell in 2009. The full court decided to rehear the case but dismissed it because the members who brought the suit were not longer elected officials.

Junell is not expected to make a ruling on the case before February.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feed in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, NewsVine and tumblr.

Photo of gavel by flickr user bloomsberries, used via a Creative Commons license.

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