in Houston, Texas
Pension finances, local government debt targeted in Texas transparency bills
Thursday, Feb 07, 2013, 02:42PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

A quartet of the most powerful legislators in Texas filed bills Thursday to make available to the public detailed financial information from most local taxing entities and pension systems across the state.

Senate bills 14 and 13 and their identical House counterparts establish, at the request of state Comptroller Susan Combs, new requirements for the posting of public debt, unfunded liabilities, borrowing and project costs on websites maintained by state and local agencies.

“People need to know what their government is doing, and how it spends their money,” Combs said in a statement she issued after a press conference announcing the filing of the bills. “We need to implement common-sense changes that put vital information about government spending and debt in front of the public.”

SB 14, drafted by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R- Waxahachie, commits the Comptroller to maintaining tax rate information for every political body collecting a sales or use tax in the state, updated by the assessors and collectors for those bodies.

Williams is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of its committee on Open Government. Pitts is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The state’s Bond Finance Office would post on a website a list of all outstanding local securities and schedules for their repayment. In turn, the issuers of local securities would submit reports of their activities to the state.

Under SB 14, the public would get more detailed information about the issuing of bonds, the rationale for their issuance and a tally of outstanding debt incurred by the bonds.

Local political bodies would be expected to file annual reports detailing all of their funds and their outstanding debt obligations. These reports would be posted on websites maintained by all cities, school districts and special taxing districts.

Susan CombsSusan Combs


Once every three years each special taxing district in the state would be expected to prepare a report defending its existence and hold a public hearing to discuss the assessment.

The bill would also require school districts to create or to include on their websites detailed information about school facilities, enrollment, estimates of projected costs for new school projects and the current annual financial report.

"When we write the budget each session, we require transparency and access to information,” Pitts said in a prepared statement Thursday. “Texas taxpayers deserve the same level of transparency and openness, and House Bill 14 will deliver just that.”

Senate Bill 13, written by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, calls on the state Pension Review Board to maintain a website for the financial information for every public pension plan in the state.

Duncan is the chairman of the State Affairs Committee and a member of the Finance Committee. Callegari is the chairman of the House Pensions Committee.

The bill would require from all pension systems, including the state’s two largest, the Employees Retirement System of Texas and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, financial reports that would include:

  • Net investment returns for each of the most recent 10 fiscal years
  • Net rate of return for 1,3, 10 and 30-year periods
  • Net rate of return from the founding of the pension plan
  • Current and future anticipated rate of return on investments.

Texas Watchdog has reported on in detail concerns with the health of pensions plans in the state and nationally.

To that end, the Pension Review Board would be expected to produce a study of the overall health of public retirement plans in Texas and present its findings to the Legislature by Sept. 1, 2014.

“It is important for taxpayers to feel confident that public pensions in Texas are being managed properly to ensure long-term financial health,” Duncan said in a statement Thursday. “Senate Bill 13 aims to give citizens the information they need to feel secure about public pensions.”

Talmadge Heflin, director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said he was particularly pleased the bills focused on opening the financial affairs of schools and pensions.

“Texas is once again at the forefront of the transparency movement, pushing for the sort of good government reforms that will give Texans more information, more choice and more freedom,” Heflin said. “Among other things, these two bills would let Texans know who’s taxing them and why, require local governments to prepare basic financial reports, and put all this information online.”

Max Patterson, executive director for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems, issued a statement Thursday saying the direction from the Comptroller’s office was the right one.

“There may be some fine-tuning we’d like to see with the fees that are indicated in the first drafts of the bill, but we will work with the comptroller on that or other matters that come up with our members,” Patterson said.

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

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Newspaper notice law ‘horse and buggy’ thinking, Rep. Jonathan Stickland wants governments in Texas to post online
Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013, 04:49PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
horse and buggy

You can already hear a distant drumbeat, the pounding of 40-gallon drums holding printer’s ink.

Freshman state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who rode into the Texas House on a surge of small-government austerity, has filed a bill he says will save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Stickland’s House Bill 335 would rescind laws that require all government bodies to pay newspapers to advertise their public notices. Instead, they would be free to post these notices on their taxpayer underwritten government websites.

Be forewarned, the following will include allusions to and even overt references to government transparency and accountability, an informed public, the commonweal and all that.

But really, when you get down to it, as we must when it comes to government, it’s going to be all about the money. And make no mistake, it’s a lot of money.

In the age of the Internet, the government tether to expensive ads in newspapers people increasingly aren’t reading is horse and buggy thinking, Stickland says. Most government bodies, even tiny municipal utility districts (MUDs), have their own websites.

Posting notices of upcoming public meetings and important actions, even soliciting public input, could be done as effectively at little or no cost on those websites, Stickland says.

Just how much taxpayers could save is a little hard to figure. When contacted by Texas Watchdog, neither the Texas Press Association nor the National Newspaper Association could provide estimates of how much newspapers earn from taxpayer-funded advertising.

Anecdotal evidence - like the $25 million a year Pennsylvania is likely spending, according to an Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy study, or the $4 million annually that school districts alone in Texas spend, a state Comptroller study found - hint at an enormous market.

Or in figures from around the country provided by legal-notice.org, a nonprofit clearinghouse for, believe it or not, news concerning public notice law.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley told Stickland’s staff moving to website notices would save county taxpayers $50,000 per year.

The National Newspaper Association back in 2000 estimated 5 to 10 percent of a newspaper’s revenue came from public notice advertising, the Annenberg Center report said. The figure today is as much as but no more than 5 percent in Texas, Donnis Baggett, executive vice-president of the Texas Press Association, says.

And while classified advertising revenue dropped 29 percent during the period the Annenberg Center looked at, public notice revenues were off by 4.3 percent.

Jonathan SticklandJonathan Stickland

In short, according to Stickland, the current welter of public notice law “amounts to nothing but a taxpayer subsidy for the companies that own newspapers, and it needs to go the way of the horse and buggy.”

Cue an incessant ink drum beat getting louder.

The editorial board for The Eagle in Bryan-College Station wrote that newspapers make a pittance on public notices and offer a tremendous public service.

“While at first glance, the bill seems innocuous, it is, in fact, dangerous – and, it won't save much money, either,” the editorial said.

Mark Engebretson, editor of the Lake County Sun, called on readers to take action.

“Call legislators, let them know,” he wrote. “It’s a bad idea, forget it. Don’t know who the legislators are? They’re listed on the Internet.”

At the top of the list of bad reasons, Baggett says, is leaving the legal responsibility of public notice in the hands of public officials. As even a casual reader of Texas Watchdog can tell you, despite the endless rhetoric, public officials have an unrelievedly awful record of making sure the people know what they’re up to.

“The fact is, most officials see this as a bother and an unnecessary expense,” Baggett says. “They would rather not deal with it.”

But if it were to come to pass, Baggett says citizens would be left to search each and every website for each and every notice from each and every government body. Providing the government body has a website.

And providing the citizen has a computer. Relying on new technology threatens to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, something the Texas Press Association has written extensively about.

Not in print but on its website, Keep Texas Notified.

If Keep Texas Notified can keep Texas notified, why couldn’t websites operated independently of government compete for the advertising monopolized by newspapers? The laws themselves, for one thing.

Legal-notice.org shows no record of any change other than that at the local level. In 2008, 153 bills, amendments and proposals like Stickland’s were proposed, the Annenberg Center study said. Few got a hearing, and none at the state level passed.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., journalism think tank, says newspapers have so far protected their turf.

“Seems to show that the old media has some clout still, slapping down these proposals as they come up,” Edmonds wrote in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog.

Expect Stickland’s bill to get slapped around by the old media some more before the session is over.

“We believe his bill might be unconstitutional,” Baggett says. “We’re looking into that.”

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

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Photo of horse and buggy by flickr user K.B. Ansari, used via a Creative Commons license.

Bexar County to post campaign finance reports online
Wednesday, Nov 14, 2012, 11:38AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
mouse

‘Bout time, Bexar County.

Beginning with the Jan. 15, 2013, filings, taxpayers in San Antonio and the rest of the county will be able to use their computers to review campaign finance reports required by law for every one of their elected officials and candidates for office, the San Antonio Express News reports.

This leaves Tarrant County alone among the state’s five most populous counties in not providing comprehensive campaign information available online. Harris County, Dallas County, and Travis County have their own search engines.

Tarrant County continues to invite you to visit their County Elections Center in downtown Fort Worth.

Taxpayers statewide can search for campaign finance and lobbying reporting for officials and operatives at the state level at the Texas Ethics Commission site.

When completed, the Bexar County Elections Department system will provide the latest campaign finance report filings and begin scanning in all past filings, Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen told the Express News.

At first, the reports will simply be scanned into the system and more reports added. A searchable database will be created, although Callanen wasn’t sure how long that might take.

This online disclosure was brought to you by the Bexar County Commissioners Court, which voted Tuesday night to create the online reporting system. A similar effort in 2008 was undermined and defeated by quiet opposition from several elected officials.

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

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Austin taxpayers footing six-figure bill to investigate possible open meetings violations, little to show for legal work so far
Monday, Jun 18, 2012, 12:01PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

After $344,000 in legal fees and the work of eight assistant county attorneys taxpayers are no closer to knowing whether Austin’s elected officials violated the Texas Open Meetings Act than they were when allegations were made 16 months ago.

Not to worry, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told the Austin American-Statesman. While he wouldn’t say what has been done so far, why it has taken so long and what might yet be needed if a case is to be made, Escamilla says he is sure the citizens paying all the bills will be happy with the results.

While firmly not confirming it, Escamilla and his assistants have been mulling over a complaint made in February of 2011 by a city activist charging that private meetings of individual City Council members and Mayor Lee Leffingwell and individual e-mail exchanges violated the Open Meetings Act.

Local media followed with formal requests to see the e-mails exchanged among officials. To the shock and delight of the community, the e-mails revealed some of the same sort of backbiting and sneering you can hear on a middle school playground every day.

Elected officials then did what any good American would do under the circumstances: get good and lawyered up at taxpayer expense. The individuals named in the complaint got their own lawyers, just for good measure.

What followed was a case with a gestation period almost as long as the challenge to ObamaCare. The Supreme Court will almost certainly make its decision before Escamilla.

Maybe it’s just because Escamilla and his staff haven’t had the practice. A case against members of the State Board of Education, the only Open Meetings Act case that resulted in a prosecution in 10 years, took two years to investigate, the American-Statesman says.

And then there is the possible impact of an interminable case now in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brought by 15 elected municipal officials contending the Texas Open Meetings Act violates their freedom of speech.

Cost and time have not suppressed the public’s interest in knowing what its government is doing. Requests of Austin’s Public Information Office for public records jumped by 32.4 percent, to 11,621 requests filed in 2011 from 8,779 in 2010, the newspaper says.

Taxpayers can expect to pay that bill, too.

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

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Texas city officials say ‘serial requestors’ must be deterred, activists worry about government transparency
Monday, Jun 18, 2012, 09:40AM CST
By Mike Cronin
keepout

Two more local governments in Texas have passed laws designed to deter "serial requestors" of public records.

Corsicana and Kemah city councils earlier this month each passed ordinances that allow public officials to bill citizens for staff time that meets or exceeds 36 hours responding to public information requests during a 12-month period.

Those decisions revive a debate about the 2007 state law that enabled local government agencies to pass on such costs: Is the effect one of government efficiency or reduced government transparency?

Corsicana and Kemah city officials contend the new policies are necessary to prevent government employees from wasting valuable time rummaging for files when they should be attending to city business. But open government advocates argue that providing citizens with public information is central to a government agency’s business.

Kemah City Attorney Dick Gregg Jr. said the law passed on June 7 by the city council will thwart the two or three “serial requestors” of open records from requesting “giant volumes of things that ties up city hall in a small city.”

Those people’s actions are “costing us dough,” Gregg said. “It’s a tremendous burden. A large portion of the staff becomes responsible for finding documents instead of taking care of running the city. So taxpayers end up paying for that work rather than the cost of city governance.”

That’s a misguided concept of democracy, said Paul Watler, a partner at the Dallas law firm Jackson Walker.

“Keeping the public informed about the business of government isn’t just ancillary to public agencies,” said Watler, past president and current member of the board at the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“Open record requests shouldn’t be looked at as something that distracts from the real work of government employees,” Watler said. “Transparency is the essence of public institutions in a democracy.”

Chuck McClanahanChuck McClanahan

That may be so, but the fact of the matter is that many broad requests do take a lot of time during the workday of Corsicana city employees, said Mayor Chuck McClanahan. Corsicana city council members passed its ordinance on June 5.

“Some of the information requests were really starting to slow down the process here,” said McClanahan, who said he believes in transparency and pointed to awards the city has won for financial transparency from the state Comptroller. “We want to be more efficient. We’re trying to be responsible with taxpayers’ money.”

Connie Standridge, the Corsicana city manager, said six people across three departments -- finance, engineering and parks -- typically handle public records requests. The city has 279 full-time employees, according to its website.

Corsicana employees spent an estimated 113 hours handling requests last year, the first year the city tracked that statistic, Standridge said. Staff has spent an estimate of 60 hours for the year to date, she said.

Local government agencies would be less burdened by requests if they would adopt technology such as document management and retrieval software, Watler said.

The new laws worry some residents, who fear they’ll be targeted as the so-called “serial requestors.”

“Now, as soon as we file requests, they’re just going to use multiple employees to use up as much time as they can” to reach the 36-hour threshold, said Blu Shields, 59, a commercial and residential builder from Texas City who does a lot work in Kemah. “Now, they can pick and choose who they charge and who they don’t.”

The ordinance enables city officials to “impede us even before we ask for records,” said Donna Holcomb, 47, a stay-at-home mom of Bacliff who used to live in Kemah. Holcomb recently asked for eight years’ worth of email records for 16 city officials and was told she could have them, but it would cost $412,000.

She said the new law gives even more power to officials such as Gregg to “give us a ludicrous estimate for the amount of time and money our record requests will cost.”

“This law is going to close up government for the people of Kemah,” she said.

Paul WatlerPaul Watler

That chilling effect is an unintended consequence of the 2007 law, said Watler, the Dallas lawyer and FOI Foundation board member who specializes in First Amendment and media law.

“It deters legitimate requestors from seeking public records,” Watler said.

The 2007 law was authored by Texas state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who put forward the proposal after parents flooded the Austin-based Lake Travis Independent School District  and the Eanes Independent School District with thousands of open records requests, according to stories in the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle.

Neither Wentworth nor officials with the two districts responded to multiple requests for comment.

Several local governments since have enacted policies based on the law, including Comal County in 2008 and Fort Bend County in 2010.

Comal County Judge Sherman Krause said he hasn’t heard anyone talk about the county’s toughened policy, “so I’m not sure how we would quantify” whether the law has made county governance more efficient.

But in Fort Bend County, the 36-hour-limit has not been triggered since the law was passed two years ago, Michelle Rangel, an assistant county attorney, said.

The Texas Legislature in passing the law exempted public officials and journalists, as well as tax-exempt legal services organizations. The exemption does not cover activists like Tom "Smitty" Smith, state director of Public Citizen, the national consumer advocacy organization founded by activist Ralph Nader.

Smith said the 2007 law “hinders people from finding out what’s really going in government,” because unraveling scandals often takes many public records requests over a long period of time.

“On a number of occasions we, or our allies, have been told that data we are seeking would be prohibitively expensive,” Smith said. “And we would have to trim back our data request or abandon it because we couldn’t afford to go forward.”

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Levelland board blocks reporter from discussion, says meeting not required to be open
Thursday, Jun 07, 2012, 10:19AM CST
By Steve Miller
No Entry

“This was some matters that we just wanted to be able to discuss informally," the city attorney said to the reporter as he denied him access to an impromptu meeting.

We’ve heard of some excuses for closing a gathering of a city board to the public – none of them valid – but that of Richard Husen, city attorney in Levelland, is at least honest and may well fall within the law.

As the ABC affiliate in Lubbock reports, the Levelland Construction Advisory Board huddled behind closed doors to discuss an incident in which the mayor allegedly assaulted the town’s building inspector. The matter is for the police to sort out.

On the other hand, the closed door meeting is one for the local district attorney’s office to check into.

The board gathered without notice as the TV crew attempted to attend the meeting. After being turned back by City Manager Rick Osburn, the crew stood outside the door of the meeting and attempted to listen.

Osburn came out of the room and asked them to leave, according to the account from the crew. They refused, and he went back into the closed door meeting.

Husen told the reporters that the meeting was that of an advisory board – a body that is fairly well defined by the Texas Government Code as not subject to the open meetings law. An exception: If the board sets policy and its decisions are routinely rubber-stamped by another board like a City Council, it may fall under open meetings requirements.

The city of Levelland has a good appearance of transparency, which is something we look at when there are allegations of impropriety.  Among its postings of public meetings, the Construction Advisory Board is not included, as it is purely an advisory body.

Still, the assault accusation, the strident response of the city attorney and the city manager to the media’s attempt to access the meeting and the appearance of an open meetings violation created an unnecessary stir.

Good work by the persistent television crew. But it looks like the city may have the law on its side.

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

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Houston ISD trustees talk budget while withholding budget materials
Friday, May 18, 2012, 10:19AM CST
By Mike Cronin
budget

Houston schools trustees and administrators discussed next year’s $1.5 billion budget Thursday morning that would determine how many teachers could lose their jobs and how much of a raise teachers who remain employed might receive.

But that public conversation was all but impossible to understand for others present.

That’s because Houston Independent School District officials did not provide copies of the materials – which are public records under the Texas Public Information Act – during the meeting. The practice is legal, an open government attorney said.

But “from a citizen’s point of view that is pretty ridiculous,” said Tom Gregor, a Houston lawyer who answers questions on open government from the public through a hotline provided by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in Austin.

State law does not obligate HISD, or any government entity, to distribute public records during an open meeting.

“But providing public information so people can follow the meeting would be in the spirit of open government,” Gregor said. “Withholding that information seems to serve no other purpose than preventing the public from understanding the information.”

Texas Watchdog requested, during and after the meeting, copies of the same materials that HISD trustees and staff members possessed and referred to throughout the two-and-a-half hour budget workshop. District officials supplied them more than 90 minutes after the meeting’s close.

Board President Mike Lunceford said in an e-mail that it would “probably make it easier for everyone else to understand” if HISD administrators supplied the public with the same documents the board has during open
meetings.

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said in an e-mail that he and district Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett intended “to make sure (reporters) have what you need to follow the conversation. If it's any consolation, I didn't have the documents either.”

Spencer did not reply to an e-mail asking if members of the public would be able to obtain such materials upon request at open HISD meetings.

Garrett apologized for the unavailability of the budget documents.

Normally we have them,” Garrett said via email Thursday night. “But I was out of town (Wednesday), and apparently wires got crossed between staff members. I think you know that we always provide copies to the public.”

In an interview with Texas Watchdog following yesterday’s workshop, Garrett said the district’s projected budget deficit is $53.1 million for 2012-13. Garrett said part of the deficit has been offset by $18.4 million in one-time federal stimulus funds approved by the board in August to balance the budget.

The district received a total of $33 million under President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Garrett said.

Trustees are considering a range of scenarios, including a 4-cent property-tax increase in 2013-14 that would put HISD in the black by about $160,000. Without that increase, HISD projects it would run a $41 million deficit that year.

“The tax increase is what would happen next budget cycle if the state does not change the funding,” Lunceford said.

HISD officials have discussed a tax hike up to 4 cents since at least last year, when trustees chose not to raise taxes.

A 4-cent tax rate increase would increase the bill for a home valued at $197,408 by about $57 per year.

District residents currently pay the lowest property taxes of all 21 Harris County school districts, HISD officials say. District officials charge residents a tax rate of $1.1567 per $100 of taxable value.

Trustees are weighing whether to give teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience a raise of 2.25 percent and those with more than 10 years a raise of 1.75 percent. HISD officials granted some teachers a raise during the 2010-11 academic year.

Garrett said a final budget proposal from HISD staff would be complete within days.

Board members are scheduled to adopt the 2012-13 budget on June 14 during their regular monthly meeting.

Whatever the board decides, next year’s budget is projected to be tens of millions of dollars lower than this year’s $1.58 billion budget.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Houston Airport System overlooks high-ranking employee's blocking of public records request, lies to cover it up
Monday, Apr 23, 2012, 06:53AM CST
By Steve Miller
IAH Bush Intercontinental

A Houston Airport System official who withheld public records against the advice of city lawyers and then lied to cover up her misdeed was never sanctioned or disciplined, public records show.

Maria Fink, assistant director of human resources at HAS, prevented the release of certain personnel records for an airport employee as required by state law and violated other city policies in her dealings with a subordinate, a 2010 investigation by the city's Office of Inspector General found. According to correspondence from the city on a public information request earlier this year, "there are no records of disciplinary actions" following that investigation.

It's hard to tell if Fink's case is an isolated one. No one at the city contacted by Texas Watchdog was willing to address if there are any penalties for violating those policies.

Annise ParkerAnnise Parker

Airport Director Mario Diaz and Eric Potts, who was interim director at the time, declined to comment.

Mayor Annise Parker, who once claimed that her administration was “trying to be much more accommodating” to open records requests, also declined to comment.

Fink, a human resources manager at Enron in the late '90s, was paid $111,000 last year, according to records. She, too, declined to comment.

On Oct. 27, 2009, Texas Watchdog reporter Jennifer Peebles submitted an open records request for “any and all personnel records” for two airport system employees, Aleks Mraovic and Kelly Hu.

Beverly Roach, the point person for public records at the airport, emailed Fink as the records requested were in her custody. Fink provided some documents but not all, and on Nov. 5 Roach emailed her supervisor, Nancy Yue.

“This is to bring to your attention a misinterpretation of HAS’ requirement to fulfill an open records request for 'personnel files,'” Roach wrote. “Maria Fink has determined that the personnel file as it exist[s] is not what is being asked for in this request. …This action is not encouraged by our Legal Department.”

Roach included in her email the penalties for refusing access to public records.

“Ms. Peebles is scheduled to come in at 10 a.m. today. I have concerns about our handling of the request. …” Roach added that she had contacted the city attorney's office regarding the issue.

On Nov. 17, Peebles emailed HAS, accusing the airport of withholding documents in violation of the law and threatening action with the state Attorney General’s office. The AG in Texas has strong powers in policing open records violations, and has shown a proclivity to take such matters seriously.

“Several days ago I visited you at your office, and you granted me access to a few sheets of paper – mainly the internal City of Houston forms indicating an employee has been promoted, reassigned or had a change in pay,” Peebles wrote. “While the paperwork you allowed me to view is indeed responsive to my request, I need to make it clear that it does not fulfill my request to HAS for all of Mr. Mraovic’s personnel file.”

Roach forwarded the email to Evelyn Njuguna in the city attorney's office, asking for advice. She copied Fink on the message.

Njuguna was clear: “If the entire file has not been released, it should be released.” She later told investigators that the request was for specific information “and was not vague in what was asked for.”

Three hours later, Fink emailed Roach and advised that "as official custodian of personnel records of HAS, I will handle this request."

Listen here

The OIG report shows that Fink continued to block the release of the records and discouraged her staff, and Roach in particular, from seeking legal advice in complying with public records requests. (Hear an excerpt of an OIG interview with Fink in the player at left.)

“The advice legal gives us is just that – advice," Fink told her staff in a Nov. 30 email. "We, as a division, weigh the risks of that advice and we (HAS management) will make the final decision on the issue. Legal does not make the decision. … We should first utilize our internal resources before we seek external help on HR and open records policies.”

On Dec. 2, over five weeks after the initial request, Peebles sent a last ditch effort email to gain access to the public records. State law requires government agencies to release records promptly and gives them a window of 10 business days to challenge the request to the AG. Peebles again asserted that the matter would be referred to the AG’s office if the records were not released.

The next day, several city officials had a conference call that included Potts, HAS employee Ian Wadsworth, Fink and assistant city attorney Don Cheatham.

In a taped interview with OIG investigator Don Williams, Cheatham said that during the meeting, a woman whom he presumed to be Fink “kind of got in my face, and I got back in hers over the phone. She just didn’t think they ought to do so-and-so and so-and-so, and I told her, ‘That’s fine, but she wasn’t a lawyer for the city, and I wasn’t taking legal advice from her.'

"She wanted to argue about it, and I said, ‘It’s not up for debate.’ You know, she acted like I was offending her.”

The files were eventually released to Texas Watchdog.

Peebles, who is no longer with Texas Watchdog, was part of a team uncovering a number of problems at the Houston Airport System the previous summer, including the creation of a nonprofit offshoot that was entangled in international development of airports using the Houston name without permission, as well as using HAS employees to do its work. At one point, the nonprofit refused to hand its records over to the city, which wanted to review the processes and work of the operation.

The wrangling over the personnel files spurred a lengthy inquiry by the city, one that investigator Williams portrayed during taped interviews as one that “keeps coming back like a bad penny,” and claiming that it was “one of my thicker case files.”

Williams compiled two-and-a-half hours of taped interviews for the Fink case, which also included some personnel issues. Six of 12 sustained complaints against Fink pertained to the open records case, three of which were violations of a mayoral directive that city employees be truthful during city investigations.

Maria FinkMaria Fink

In one interview, Fink told Williams that she had contacted the city attorney’s office on her own regarding the Texas Watchdog request. She said she spoke to Don Fleming, an assistant city attorney.

“We went to another area of the legal department…” Fink said. She said she was told that her “interpretation” was correct.

“…There were now two different interpretations,” Fink said.

Fleming, questioned by the investigator, said that he was never contacted by Fink and that his colleague Cheatham handles open records questions.

Wadsworth, a deputy director at HAS, told Williams that at one point he had a call with Potts and Cheatham, and that there was consensus that Fink’s read on the request was correct, and they would not release the whole file.

But the legal office had told them that the request was for the whole file, which should be released.

Wadsworth then directed Roach to obey Fink and release only the few pages to Texas Watchdog, according to tapes and documents of the investigation.

Listen here

Wadsworth, who was found to have lied to an OIG agent during the inquiry, spoke to the investigator three times in just over five weeks in sometimes combative tones and at several points talked over Williams, interrupting him. (Hear an excerpt of an interview with Wadsworth in the player at right.)

Wadsworth misleadingly told Williams that the Texas Watchdog request “asked for all and any items in the personnel file relating to a number of things.” He initially said the request was read to him by Fink, then said he read the request.

Wadsworth called the request for the personnel records “somebody on the outside doing a fishing expedition presumably for the purpose of discrediting a city employee.”

“We have got to clearly comply with all laws and regulations from a [public records] perspective,” Wadsworth told Williams. “But I believe we also have an obligation to make sure we do what we can to protect our city employees, and therefore if as long as we’re compliant with the [open records] we don’t need to be loose in our interpretation, provide any more than necessary if that’s just going to hurt a city employee.”

Roxanne Butler, communications chief at HAS, told Williams that Fink was to blame for the entire episode. (Hear an excerpt of an OIG interview with Butler in the player below.)

Butler said, in a disjointed use of an old phrase, that having Fink handle a public records request for an HAS employee file ”would be like the fox watching the chicken hen, and when the farmer comes out the fox is now doing damage control. She needed to separate herself. … My feeling is, if one of my staff members is being investigated, I don’t get out front and try to be explaining it and showing it to the person who is looking it over. ... It’s Beverly’s job.”

Butler said she had to answer questions that were coming from Mayor Bill White’s office through spokesman Patrick Trahan after the threat to go to the AG’s office.

“His concern was, ‘Let’s get her the records.’ He wasn’t looking at the back end. He was looking at where we are now, and can we move forward."

Listen here

Butler said at one point she, Trahan and Roach had a conference call.

During the call, “I wanted to make clear that Beverly is not the reason were in this position," she said. "The reason we are here is that someone else involved themselves in the process. [Fink] completely micromanaged the situation and messed it up. Maria caused the situation - I don’t know why. This FOIA stuff you can’t play with. If you hand the reporter five to seven pieces of paper, any reporter is going to look at you and say, ‘You’re full of shit.’ Then I became offended, and I said, ‘What are you hiding?’"

The OIG was clear in its findings: “The investigation revealed that Ms. Fink placed Ms. Roach in an untenable position by failing and/or refusing to comply with the request. The investigation revealed that between November 17, 2009 and December 1, 2009, Ms. Fink failed to comply with the Texas Watchdog Open Records request.”

The inquiry also determined that Fink misled investigators by claiming that Peebles’ Nov. 17 email was a clarification.

“The investigation revealed that the October 27 and November 17 requests both requested any and all personnel files and documentation concerning Mr. Aleks Mraovic," the report states. "Ms Fink was untruthful in her response when she indicated that Ms. Peebles modified her request."

There were other violations of city policy and mayoral directives by Fink, including several infringements of Roach’s rights as an employee. Wadsworth was found to be guilty of one violation, lying to the investigator regarding the city attorney read on the request.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@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 "Lights Spikes" - the sculpture by Jay Baker outside Bush Intercontinental Airport - by flickr user eschipul, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

After prodding, Houston Community College posts trustees’ campaign finance reports online
Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012, 12:50PM CST
By Mike Cronin
checkbook

It took a while, but Houston Community College officials finally are coming around to the notion of providing information defined by Texas state law as public. To the public. Without a hassle.

But they still have a ways to go.

Unlike many other public entities, HCC spent at least three months and an unknown amount of taxpayer money to block the release of HCC board members’ and board seat candidates’ home addresses.

Home addresses for candidates for public office are important, among other reasons, to ensure they live at a residence that qualifies them to run.

Texas Watchdog reporters and local blogger Charles Kuffner requested in August the home addresses and other personal information contained in campaign-finance reports for nine HCC board members and one candidate.

State law allows HCC and other Texas entities funded by taxpayers to redact home addresses of its elected officials and employees only if those officials or employees requested that in writing within 14 days of taking office.

But when Texas Watchdog asked in August whether that had occurred, HCC staff attorney Jessica Saldivar replied in an e-mail that “the Texas Public Information Act does ‘not require a governmental body (HCC) to create new information, to do legal research or to answer questions.’”

Only after the Texas attorney general ruled on Nov. 15 that HCC officials must release that information did they do so.

They chose to respond to the attorney general’s order by posting the board members’ campaign finance reports online. Still, it took HCC officials until February to get it done – long after HCC board Chairman Richard Schechter suggested last summer that trustee campaign finance reports be made available online and well past the 10 business day deadline in the law.

And instead of telling Texas Watchdog precisely when HCC created its trustee campaign finance form website, Saldivar again replied in an e-mail, “Under the Texas Public Information Act, I am not required to answer questions, and therefore I cannot provide you with a statement regarding your questions.”

Dan Arguijo, the HCC spokesman, at last supplied the answer on Tuesday in an e-mail.

Board members approved posting campaign finance reports online in September, but no action took place until after HCC officials received the attorney general’s ruling on Nov. 18, Arguijo said.

The delay occurred, in part, due to HCC employees being on vacation during winter break from Dec. 19 through Jan. 3, Arguijo said.

“HCC did everything logistically possible to meet posting this important information for the public's benefit,” he said. “Moving forward we are committed to make the (campaign-finance reports) available on a timely basis.”

Past reports dating back to 2010 are available for past and current trustees, Arguijo said.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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 'Woman Balancing Her Checkbook' money by flickr user SurvivalWoman, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

El Paso school district holds up records over typo in public information request
Tuesday, Apr 17, 2012, 01:45PM CST
By Steve Miller
keyboard

A battle over open records continues between the El Paso Times and the  El Paso Independent School District.

Or is that bewteen?

The newspaper says it has sought preliminary results of a federal audit of the district via an open records request.

District officials sought a state Attorney General opinion, and lost the ruling in a Feb. 14 decision, according to the newspaper. The district and the U.S. Department of Education appealed the matter again last week, focusing on a four-page report of findings.

Not the accepted practice; once you lose at the AG’s office, you can’t go back.

But the two appealing bodies claim they have a reason, according to the Times, and for this we have to let the newspaper tell the story:

[The newspaper] asked for "any and all information provided to the U.S. Department of Education in response to its Dec. 7, 2010 request for information" and "any follow-up correspondence bewteen the district to the U.S. Department of Education."

In a letter mailed Thursday to the state's attorney general seeking to keep secret the preliminary audit results, Anthony Safi, the district's lawyer, excluded the word "between" in his characterization of the types of documents sought in the El Paso Times' open-records request.

Why?

District spokeswoman Renee de Santos defended Safi's characterization of the Times' request in his letter to the attorney general.
De Santos said in an email that technically Safi did not exclude the word "between" in his letter to the attorney general because "in fact, the word 'between' was not in the El Paso Times November 15 request for information."

De Santos pointed to the typographical error in the request that misspelled the word as "bewteen."

Safi did not return a call immediately.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@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 computer keyboard by flickr user trustypics, used via a Creative Commons license.

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