in Houston, Texas
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.
Teachers’ pension fund suit wrongheaded, not in public interest: Star-Telegram editorial
Monday, Jun 27, 2011, 01:06PM CST
By Kevin Lee
cash

A lawsuit by the state teachers’ pension fund is wrongheaded and runs counter to the public interest, according to a Sunday editorial from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The Star-Telegram and the Teachers Retirement System of Texas butted heads after the newspaper requested a list of the system’s top 10 pensioners. The newspaper requested the retirement fund withhold request names, titles or any other identifying information of retirees, and the state Attorney General ruled the TRS must comply. The retirement fund has sued the AG to keep those records private.

From the Star-Telegram:
Hardly anyone -- aside from showoffs -- likes to have their income made public.
But when Texas taxpayers are getting sent the bill, the responsible thing is to ask how much it is.
After all, the state pocketbook isn't bottomless. It gets shallower all the time, and people should know where the money's going.
But officials with the Teacher Retirement System of Texas don't want the public to learn how big the biggest retirement checks the state agency issues are, even though taxpayer funds are involved.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of money by flickr user jtyerse, 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.

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Photo of 'closed' sign by flickr user tonx, used via a Creative Commons license.
Bill requires state to collect more data on for-profit schools
Friday, Jun 10, 2011, 02:34PM CST
By Kevin Lee
graduation cap

For-profit and career colleges located in Texas would be subject to the same data collection and transparency standards that state universities and colleges are held to under Senate Bill 1534 awaiting the governor’s signature, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports.

SB 1534 would require the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to include those trade schools on its online accountability system, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which reported on the legislation this Thursday. Currently, the system records information like graduation rates and research spending for state universities, state health institutions, state colleges, state technical colleges and community colleges. The bill also requires for-profit schools to post to their websites the names of any regulatory agencies that oversee them, and the process for filing complaints.

Bill sponsor state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the new rules would help protect students:

Students "were getting stuck between a rock and hard place," Shapiro said, explaining how she was moved to act after watching a news report about investigations into for-profit schools. "There was nobody paying attention."

WFAA-TV in Dallas reported last year about a chain of for-profit trade colleges called ATI, whose students complained that they were promised well-paying jobs in fields such as welding and maintenance but were left with thousands of dollars in debt and dim job prospects. The Texas Workforce Commission later announced it had found ATI to be in violation of state rules governing job placement, the station reported this April. The state cut off a stream of state funding to the school and required the for-profit college system to submit records electronically and hire a third-party auditor to verify job placement numbers.

ATI and other trade schools and for-profits lobby Austin through their Career Colleges and Schools of Texas PAC, which has donated $12,000 to Gov. Rick Perry since 2000, as well as a number of mostly Republican lawmakers.

The federal government has clamped down on for-profit schools, which siphon off billions of dollars in taxpayer money through federal grants.

Institutions that provide career training programs would have to comply with new rules aimed at keeping student debt in check and finalized by the U.S. Department of Education last week or lose federal funding.

While the regulations would be applied to certificate programs across-the-board, the federal agency noted that while students at for-profit schools represent 12 percent of all higher education students, they represent 46 percent of all student loan dollars in default.

In 2009, for-profit college systems received $24 billion in federal support while their admission rates continue to swell, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last summer.

The GAO sent undercover applicants to 15 for-profit college systems to study admission standards. At four schools, school staff encouraged undercover applicants to provide false information in order to qualify for financial aid, the GAO said. The applicants also observed school personnel providing unclear information on fundamental matters such as tuition costs, program duration and graduation rates.

***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or news@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of graduation cap by flickr user Shoshanah, used via a Creative Commons license.

Fort Worth assistant city attorney resigns after bungling hundreds of requests for public information
Monday, May 16, 2011, 02:43PM CST
By Steve Miller
fortworth

An assistant city attorney in Fort Worth responsible for responding to public information requests has resigned after it was discovered he was unduly delaying release of information.

This column in Saturday’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that C. Patrick Phillips resigned last month after his boss discovered he had botched more than 300 requests for public information.

 

From the piece:

Since 2008, Phillips had not properly handled 327 requests, the city reported later. For the vast majority of those, Phillips had either missed the deadline for asking the Texas attorney general to exempt the information or failed to release information as the AG's office had ordered.

Star-Telegram's watchdog columnist Dave Lieber has been putting the pressure on Fort Worth, shining a light on the city's practice of delaying the release of information by appealing records requests to the Attorney General. In Texas, if a government agency has questions about whether a record is open, the agency may ask the AG's office to decide the matter. In practice, the appeals process for some governments becomes a knee-jerk reaction.

 

In Fort Worth, it got bad enough that Lieber filed a complaint with the state AG’s office, and even after that, it took almost two months for the city to comply with state law.

 

Lieber clarified the purpose of the appeals process:

The attorney general's office referred me to its open-records decision No. 684, dated Dec. 14, 2009, which offers a guide to governments about when they should seek its rulings.

 

The decision explains that it "is intended to encourage the prompt release of requested public information and increase the efficiency of the PIA [Public Information Act] review process by clearly identifying certain types of information that governmental bodies may withhold without the delay of requesting an attorney general decision."

***

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


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

Police records hard to get in Fort Worth
Monday, Apr 25, 2011, 09:58AM CST
By Steve Miller
police badge

Star-Telegram columnist Dave Lieber discussed in a weekend column his effort to obtain police records in Fort Worth, finding that the city unduly prolongs public records requests.

 

Lieber, who also runs an excellent blog called Watchdog Nation, was doing his own test of a Star-Telegram story last summer that found Fort Worth appealed to the state Attorney General’s office “far more than other Texas cities of similar size with questions or arguments about excluding or withholding records.”

 

Lieber asked for e-mails and personnel records for a police officer on Nov. 11. The request was appealed Nov. 29. The AG came back in favor of Lieber on Feb. 7.  Fort Worth finally released the records April 2, more than a month after Lieber filed a complaint with the AG.

 

For some commonly requested e-mails and personnel records, a wait time of almost five months.

 

And here’s the kicker: Lieber was requesting the same records that had been denied another requestor last year, with the city claiming that the e-mails had been deleted from the city’s computer server. 

 

There are too many agencies, cities and other public bodies skirting sunshine laws, most recently the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. We did a wrapup of open records issues in the state in 2010, and it appears things have not gotten much better.

 

***

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


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Photo of a police badge by flickr user davidsonscott15, used via a Creative Commons license.

Pension boards would be subject to Texas Public Information Act under House bill, but could still keep secret pension amounts
Monday, Apr 11, 2011, 04:35PM CST
By Steve Miller
Texas state Capitol dome

Taxpayers in New York and Connecticut can see who is earning a state pension and how much.

 

Not so in Texas, where state legislators have made laws to keep secret the names of recipients, including those who double dip - or draw a pension while also getting a full-time salary.


The Fort Worth Star-Telegram featured an op-ed this weekend lauding State Rep. Vicki Truitt and her HB 2460, which has the potential to at least lift the veil a bit on the pension boards in the state by making them subject to the state’s public information law. 


Believe it or not, despite the fact that these boards make investments, take trips and handle millions of dollars in public money, they are not subject to much of our state’s transparency laws.


Some prolific abuse of taxpayer money has gone down in the name of public pensions; the Detroit Free Press exposed such abuse in a series of stories in 2009. But the paper used transparency laws that are more permissive than ours.


Perhaps Truitt’s bill will help. But we are still looking for ways to access more information about just why we are on the edge of a pension crisis. What are individuals making in those crucial three years on which their pension is based? How much in overtime are they racking up to boost their retirement payout? And while we are aware of the double-dipping issue, isn't knowing who is doing this perhaps a first step to reducing it? 


Truitt did not respond to a request for interview.


***

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


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

Toll fines would be capped under bill by Texas state Rep. Diane Patrick
Thursday, Apr 07, 2011, 11:27AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
toll machine

After hearing hundreds of complaints from irate toll road users, lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bills to cap fines and administrative costs for unpaid bills.

Sort of like sealing the top of the bowl with Cling Wrap when a fouled toilet backs up. Immediate disaster is averted, but sooner or later a mess will need attending to.

Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, wants the Legislature to set a $250 limit on the fine a toll road operator can charge drivers for failing to pay their monthly toll bill, according to a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Patrick wants tollway operators to charge no more than $25 administrative fees for the first notice of fine, rather than the $100 they are allowed to assess now. One fee for every one notice, the bill says.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, managed to get a similar bill through committee last week, the story says.

Both legislators say they’ve heard horror stories from constituents - Nelson says she tallied 160 - who say for whatever reason they do not receive their normal bills, but later receive notices that include fines and administrative costs in the hundreds of dollars.

Allen Clemson, executive director of the North Texas Tollway Authority, told the House Transportation Committee the authority has a small percentage of violators whose bills top $1,000. One habitual offender has rolled up 138 notices and an $18,000 bill using the toll roads, Clemson said.

"This needed to be fixed," Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, the committee chairman, said.

Fixed, in this case, is a relative term. Neither bill offers a remedy to what constituents say is a pronounced billing problem with Texas toll road operators. Nor do the caps in the bills differentiate between drivers who are victims of faulty billing and drivers who flout the billing system.

Maybe the Cling Wrap will stay tight until next session.
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of toll machine on the Sam Houston Tollway in Houston by flickr user billjacobus1, used via a Creative Commons license.
Texas state Sen. Eddie Lucio’s proposed soda tax 6 times the tax on same amount of beer
Tuesday, Mar 15, 2011, 12:03PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
soda cans

State Sen. Eddie Lucio has a tax for you, but he wants you to know it’s for your own good. Aren’t all taxes?

Every time you pop the tab on that icy cold Barq’s root beer think how much better it will taste paying the state 12 cents more to drink it, should the Legislature approve the new soda tax proposed by Lucio, D-Brownsville, according to today’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Lucio makes a half-hearted pass at childhood obesity and the health care-related costs, excuses other states have used to passed soft drink taxes. However, Lucio says he thinks everyone ought to pay more for their soda, not so much so that we’ll all be in the pink, but because of the terrible fiscal fix he and his fellow legislators are in here in Austin. The soda tax could raise $2 billion a year.

"There are solutions to the budget mess we find ourselves in which do not involve making drastic cuts to vital services," Lucio said. "The Texas Legislature should be exploring these solutions."

The story also trots out an array of experts surmising and supposing on health and tax benefits, issues that have been raised in the past, and a critic who thinks Lucio and his colleagues ought to focus on spending less rather than on creative new ways to raise revenue.

Texas Watchdog wonders why Lucio is not considering raising state taxes on alcohol, arguably a much more serious and costly health problem in Texas. For whatever reason, the Legislature has not raised taxes on liquor, wine and beer since 1984.

The state tax on beer is 19.4 cents a gallon, or 1.82 cents a 12-ounce can, compared to the 12 cents Lucio is asking for the same sized-can of soda, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The tax on liquor is $2.40 a gallon or 2.8 cents for a typical 1.5 ounce shot poured in the local watering spot. Wine is a veritable bargain, taxed at 41 cents a gallon or about 8 cents a bottle, corked or screw-off cap.

Texas Watchdog, collectively, enjoys its cocktails far too much to be suggesting a bigger donation to the state for the privilege of drinking. Far from it. And we know very well why liquor taxes haven’t been raised in nearly 30 years.

For the same reason Sen. Lucio would rather take his chances on whether there is a soda lobby. The one for liquor everyone knows about.
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of vintage Sprite cans by flickr user Roadsidepictures, used via a Creative Commons license.
Records show 23-year-old died after DFW Nursing & Rehab staff waited seven minutes to start CPR
Tuesday, Nov 16, 2010, 01:45PM CST
By Steve Miller
stethoscope

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram yesterday highlighted the story of a young man who died in a Fort Worth nursing home after suffering apparent neglect. According to the story, a 23-year-old man injured in a car crash died Sept. 14 when nurses took several minutes pondering whether to revive him after he stopped breathing.

The case has resulted in the possible closure of the home, which has been open for 20 years.

According to the story:

"Seven minutes passed before staff at DFW Nursing & Rehab began chest compressions, according to state records.

A nurse practitioner at the home later told investigators after (patient Evan Fleming's) September death, 'A seven-minute delay is never OK.'

CPR within the first five minutes is crucial, according to medical experts.

The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services said DFW Nursing's "neglect" of Fleming and the home's policies and procedures -- seven nurses lacked current CPR certification -- posed an immediate jeopardy to Fleming and potentially dozens more, according to an investigation report obtained by the Star-Telegram….

DFW Nursing's administrator did not return repeated phone calls, and the home declined to release a public report about the incident.”

DFW Nursing & Rehab has received poor ratings from the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services for the past three years, which assembles and presents assessments of state facilities, although much of its research is presented in a fashion that would be difficult for a layman to understand.

Reports on Aug. 27, 2009, and Sept. 20, 2010, determined the facility was providing “substandard quality of care."

“The facility did not give each resident care and services to get or keep the highest quality of life possible,” according to a note from the Sept. 20 report.

The Star-Telegram says that two administrators had been reported to state boards, and that payments for new admissions could be put on hold and civil penalties were recommended.

Other reviews of DFW Nursing and Rehab can be found here and here.

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

Photo of a stethoscope by flickr user wenzday01, used via a Creative Commons license.

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 MySpaceDiggFriendFeedNewsVine and tumblr.

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Dallas Morning News | 7 years 6 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 7 years 6 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 7 years 6 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 7 years 6 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 7 years 6 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 7 years 6 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 6 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 6 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 6 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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