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.

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

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Government contractors resist Texas public records law with lawsuits
Tuesday, Nov 27, 2012, 12:04PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
dome

People who work for your government and deal with your government would rather you didn’t know so much about your government. And they would like the law to reflect that view.

Don’t take our word for it. As many as half of the lawsuits filed with the Attorney General’s office come from government contractors who want to skirt the Texas Public Information Act, Amanda Crawford, the assistant attorney general for open records, told a Senate Committee on Open Government hearing Monday, Associated Press reports.

As we have been reporting for more than a year, the Austin American-Statesman has been fighting in court to determine exactly the taxpayers’ involvement in a recently staged Formula 1 race outside of Austin.

Circuit of the Americas, the company that made agreements with the state, Travis County and Austin to build its grand prix race track, has argued disclosing details of those agreements would compromise it in the marketplace.

Crawford told two-fifths of the committee (Chairman Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and vice-chairman Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, were there. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler and outgoing Sens. Florence Shapiro and Jeff Wentworth were not.) what she regularly sees are contracts drawn with government bodies who are allowed very little access to the contractual fine points.

If your elected officials don’t know what is going on, what are the odds that you will?

The committee leaders also heard from the staff members from cities pestered by what they refer to as frivolous open records requests. Camila Kunau, an assistant city attorney for San Antonio, asked that state law be changed to allow the city to charge more for those kinds of requests.

Kunau did not offer at the hearing to help lawmakers define what, exactly, would be a frivolous open records request, although we are relatively sure she would be glad to.

And, speaking of frivolous, there is the reflexive response of some local officials to being asked to abide by the Public Information Act and its companion, the Texas Open Meetings Act: going to court on the taxpayer’s cuff.

Crawford told the committee the city of Lubbock and a commissioner in Bexar County are currently fighting to keep e-mails about public business private because they were sent on a private account.

City officials we have come to call Furtive Fifteen have taken their challenge to the Open Meetings Act to the Supreme Court, after having lost in every Texas court that would have them.

And taxpayers in Austin are still watching the legal meter run after Travis County attorneys ran up a legal bill of nearly $350,000 trying to determine whether Austin city officials violated the Open Meetings Act nearly two years ago.

Terri Burke and Russell Coleman, speaking on behalf of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, reminded the committee the reason the public information laws in Texas exist is not to make life less burdensome for elected officials but to give the public information.

If the laws need to be changed, Burke told the committee, they need to be made clearer to those officials who are currently unsure. More information is always better than less.

***
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 Texas state Capitol dome by flickr user coffee is for closers, used via a Creative Commons license.

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.

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