At last, government wants to speak clearly

The Texas Board of Education may have voted to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of historical figures whose writings inspired the world, but that hasn’t stopped another Texas government agency from showing its literary side.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has sent out a press release worthy of the Paris Review.

The first two paragraphs state:

“In the heat of a bitter literary dustup, Ernest Hemingway once said, `[William] Faulkner thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and better words. Those are the ones I use.’

“Nearly 70 years have passed since Hemingway delivered his famous smackdown of overwritten prose, but it’s as relevant as ever to HHSC employees who are trying to make plain language a defining feature of all agency communications.”

Now, frankly, that’s the best press release I’ve read in a long, long time.

Smackdown? Overwritten prose? I think I’m in love.

Then the news release gets serious. Turns out staff members are rewriting existing applications, letters, brochures, video scripts and Web content so that people can actually understand the words.

Welcome to the “No-Jargon Zone” as the state health agency proclaims. “HHSC takes steps to clean up its language.”

This gets better.

The statement describes a “less-is-more” philosophy.

And better.

“Telling people more than they need or want to know is something we are often guilty of,” HHSC spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman says of government communicators. “Someone asks what time it is and we tell them how to build a watch. It’s important to know when enough is enough.”

And better.

“We aren’t just talking about letters, brochures and forms. We want the idea of clear, direct communications to permeate the entire agency culture.”

Agency leaders say clients were confused about forms to fill out. Here’s an example of what they are trying to do:

The old form:

“I authorize this individual to make or give any request or notice; to present or elicit evidence; to obtain information; and to receive any notice in connection with this Appeal or Complaint wholly in my stead.”

Became this:

“I allow this person to do all of the following on my behalf for this complaint or appeal:

– Make or give any request or notice

– Present, gather or give up any information

– Receive any notices or requests for more information”

Here’s how HHSC describes the success of that editing process:

“Although the word count actually is higher in the plain-language rewrite, the new version communicates the key ideas far better. Most folks are clearer on the meaning of ‘gather’ than ‘elicit.’ Non-lawyers will appreciate the absence of stilted phrases such as ‘wholly in my stead.’ And no English majors will be offended by pointless capitalizations of words such as appeal and complaint.”

All true, but we can do even better. When you are The Watchdog columnist for the Star-Telegram, you are trained to take complex ideas and share them in a handful of words.

I’d change it to:

“I give this person permission during this process to represent me in the sharing of information in any and all manner as required to make my case.”

Boom.

Or even better:

“I give this person permission to represent me during this process.”

Bada-bing-bada-BOOM!

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

In Texas, I’m worried about open government

When Lucille Drain resigned in November from the Newark City Council, she was 96 years old and the oldest serving public official in Texas. But her age wasn’t what did her in.

After 26 years on the council, she wrote in her resignation letter: “The main reason for resigning early before term ceases, I care not to work with new council members through computers with all the questions and answers cut and dried before meetings.”

As first reported in the Wise County Messenger, she said she believed that city business was being discussed by council members and the mayor via e-mails, instead of in a public forum.

“I don’t think a city can be run by computers,” she stated.

This is a Dave Lieber column on Texas open government for WatchdogNation.com.

Bless her for telling it like it is. In many towns and school districts, e-mail communication, texting, phone calls and face-to-face talk about the people’s business is conducted by public officials away from publicly announced meetings where the work of government is supposed to take place. But violations are difficult to prove.

One of the few ways to enforce the Texas Open Meetings Act is the fear among officials that if they violate the law, they could get caught. The penalty is a $500 fine and up to six months in jail.

As I first reported in the Dave Lieber column in the Jan. 8, 2010 Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, now there’s an attempt under way by some public officials to remove criminal penalties from the law. These officials, acting in what appears to be a highly coordinated effort, are saying that the open-meetings law is too strict.

Although 1989 was the last time a public official in Texas went to jail for this offense, some public officials claim that the law is a violation of their right of free speech. They say they want it changed because they should be allowed to talk to whomever they want to without the threat of jail hanging over their heads.

Under the law, a majority of members, or quorum, of a public board is prohibited from discussing government business outside an official meeting. According to the most widely accepted interpretation of the law, the public is not prevented from talking to government officials, but in some circumstances, officials are not allowed to fully respond in a public meeting unless the topic has been listed on a pre-published meeting agenda.

Also, the “free speech advocates” say they are afraid that e-mails can be used against them

Any movement to decriminalize the open-meetings law and roll back open government in Texas during this era of greater accountability might sound absurd on its face. Approximately 20 states tie some form of strict penalty to their open-meetings laws, open-government experts says.

However, one of Texas’ best lawyers, Dick DeGuerin of Houston, is co-counsel in a federal lawsuit filed last month in Pecos that challenges the open-meetings law on free speech grounds. Here is the lawsuit challenging Texas’ open records law.

The lawsuit states, “Citizens are afraid to talk to the officials who represent them, and those same officials are afraid to talk to the citizens, for fear of being indicted and prosecuted.”

Among those public officials listed as plaintiffs in the case: Arlington City Councilman Mel LeBlanc, who told my newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, last month, “It’s an insult to individuals that spend a good portion of our lives in community service that if we misinterpret the Open Meetings Act in its vagueness that we can go to jail or be fined.”

At its annual conference, held in October in Fort Worth, the Texas Municipal League, which lobbies lawmakers on behalf of cities, passed a resolution submitted by the city of Sugar Land calling for decriminalization.

The resolution supports legislation next year “to amend the Open Meetings Act by replacing the criminal enforcement provisions with less restrictive penalties that balance the First Amendment right of governmental officials.” The replacement penalty most talked-about would overturn any decision made by a body if the open meetings act has been violated. This already exists as a noncriminal penalty under the current law.

Further momentum for the cause came when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in a lawsuit filed by Alpine City Council members that public officials are protected by free speech even when they conduct “their official duties.”

Read the 5th Circuit’s opinion that pertains to Texas open government here.open government

That gives hope to those who want to remove the threat of a fine or jail time.

Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says he believes that opinion shows that in the future, a federal court could rule that Texas’ law is too tough on public officials. Read his column “Texas Newspaper Lash Out At City Officials” on tml.org here.

Alpine City Attorney Rod Ponton, DeGeurin’s co-counsel in the lawsuit, told me: “We are fully in favor of open government and no ’secret deals.’ However, we favor individual First Amendment rights over government laws that censor elected officials.

“There is a balance that allows free communications and open government. Texas goes too far. Elected officials lose their free speech rights when they take office, and that violates the First Amendment.”

Sharply countering that, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office released a statement: “In this case, elected officials, municipalities and critics of open government are turning the First Amendment on its head. The First Amendment is furthered, not frustrated, by open meeting laws. And for that reason open meetings laws have been upheld under the First Amendment by every court . . . that has ever considered the issue.”

Blunt talk also comes from open-government advocate Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He says, “Anybody that is having trouble following the law as it applies to open meetings of government officials should reconsider running for public office rather than trying to change the law.”

Meanwhile, momentum builds. The Wichita Falls City Council voted three weeks ago to join Alpine, Big Lake, Pflugerville and Rockport as co-plaintiffs in the current federal lawsuit.

Watchdog Nation will keep an eye on this one.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the bookwon two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

In cases of life and death, civil servants deserve a break

Is it OK to close a government office when an employee dies?

A woman visited a local courthouse office to renew her car license plates. But the tax assessor-collector’s office was closed.


Allison Davis photo

Allison Davis, a former courthouse employee


A note on the front door stated: “We are saddened by the loss of our fellow employee, Allison Davis, who suddenly passed away on the 28th. We regret the inconvenience, but we will be closed for Allison’s memorial service this day.”

The notice referred visitors to other locations — there are seven other offices in the county — and the office’s Web site, which accepts payments for everything but vehicle title transfers.

Frustrated, the woman tried to get in touch with Tarrant County, Texas Tax Assessor-Collector Betsy Price, finally reaching her on the phone after five tries. Price said she closed the office so Davis’ co-workers could attend the funeral.

The woman was not satisfied.

“Who is your boss?” she asked Price.

“You are. If you live in Tarrant County, you are,” Price replied.

That day, the woman wrote to The Watchdog, “As a taxpayer, I am concerned about the use of our tax money in closing for a day.”

When I called, she said: “We can’t just shut an office. In a school, even if a principal or a teacher dies, they don’t close the school.”

I called Price. As first told in the Dec. 6, 2009 Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. here’s the rest of the story:

Davis, 38, was a 10-year employee of Tarrant County known for her wonderful customer service skills. “She loved people,” Price said. And “everybody loved Allison.”

On Oct. 27, Davis told her supervisor that she felt sick. She was pale and sweaty. The supervisor called Davis’ husband, Matt, and asked him to pick her up.

Matt Davis thought she had the flu. But the next morning, her lips were blue. He rushed her to the doctor, who sent her to an emergency room. From there, she took a CareFlite helicopter ride to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, where she was born. She was placed in intensive care.

But 23 hours after she first complained to her boss, Allison Davis was dead.

Matt Davis told me that he is awaiting autopsy results but that doctors think his wife died of blood poisoning.

The weekend before, his wife threw a surprise birthday party for her mother. On her last night, Matt Davis said, they were going to celebrate Halloween, a few nights away, with a “scary movie and takeout food” — a date night, he called it.

“That was my best friend,” Matt Davis said. “We were still honeymooning.” They were married for nine years.

He said he admired her devotion to her job. “She went above and beyond,” he said. She used to take government forms to people who needed them rather than have them come to the office to pick up the forms.

“She always had a bright smile,” he said. “She was not your typical civil servant. Allison would greet you: ‘Hey, darling. How are you doing? I haven’t seen you. Come up here.’?”

She handled vehicle title transfers, renewals and property tax collection.

“She was a sweet and funny lady,” one woman wrote in Davis’ memorial book linked to her star-telegram.com obituary. Then the ultimate compliment: “She made it worth waiting in line.”

The day after Davis died, Price brought a chaplain to the office to talk to employees. “It’s a very tight office,” Price said.

Under civil service rules, county employees may use four hours of emergency time to attend a funeral. They can take off the rest of the day as vacation time.

The employees in Price’s office spent the morning together before the funeral; they took vacation time, Price said.

“We’ve never had a death of an employee,” Price said of her 10 years in office. She decided to let the Granbury Road office staff and one or two senior people from each of the seven other offices attend the funeral. As an elected county official, Price runs her department as she sees fit. While she follows civil service guidelines for employee rules, any decisions about office operations are up to her.

“It was a tough decision,” Price said. “I had never closed an office before. But this was one of those rare exceptions.”

Agreed. In extraordinary circumstances, especially those involving life and death, public officials deserve a break.

What do you think?

Note: The author of this report, Dave Lieber, is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His new book — Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation — won two national book awards for social change in 2009.