VIDEO: Watchdog Nation visits Southlake Library on Oct. 27, 2011

In this fun James Bond-spoof, Star-Telegram Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber – founder of Watchdog Nation – invites the public to a free public workshop at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 at Southlake Public Library, 1400 Main Street. Fight back and win against the scoundrels. Learn how to save time, money and aggravation for the rest of your life!

WatchdogNation.com sponsors Elvis concert for SummerSanta.org children’s charity

Watchdog Nation is sponsoring an Elvis concert for SummerSanta.org children’s charity on Nov. 14, 2010 at Grapevine’s Palace Theatre.

Dave Lieber, founder of Watchdog Nation, is also co-founder of Summer Santa, one of North Texas’ largest children’s charities. Summer Santa operates as an all-volunteer charity with no paid staff or physical office. Watchdog Nation is proud to sponsor a charity that makes sure that almost every penny goes to support the children’s programs such as summer camp scholarships, toy distribution for summertime play, back-to-school clothing and school supplies, free medical checkups and after-school activities.

See videos and pictures from the Nov. 4, 2010 VIP sponsor party saluting all the sponsors, including WatchdogNation.com here.

And note that this party, in keeping with Summer Santa’s no-overhead policy, only cost $300 to put on. Yet it raised thousands.

And here’s a preview video of Elvis. You can purchase tickets for the event here.


Police officer can’t get records he wants despite Texas open records law

For the Fourth of July, 2010, I decided to play watchdog by sharing the story of the man with the noble idea that he can ask for and receive public information from a city government? It’s a true symbol of our freedom, our liberty, our right to know how we are governed, right?

Only when it isn’t.

Meet Dan St. Clair, who is one little piece in the puzzle that is the part of Fort Worth government that doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of people. He asked for public information 16 months ago. He never got it. The city admits it mishandled his request. It wasn’t until this week, with prodding from The Watchdog, that the city even told him that what he wanted is no longer available. (The reason it’s not available is something we’ll discover — and you may not like it.)

Recently, my colleague, Star-Telegram reporter Gene Trainor, reported that Fort Worth is one of the toughest cities from which to retrieve public records. It filed more requests for attorney general rulings than other cities its size. Critics call that a delaying tactic. “I can go to Euless and request the same information; they turn it over. Fort Worth — no,” a defense attorney told Trainor.

St. Clair is quick to agree. The 38-year-old retired Air Force captain has gung-ho ideas about what it means when you say government of the people, by the people, for the people. For the last three years, he has worked as a Fort Worth police officer. And in a move that seems to be from a TV detective show, he began investigating the behavior of a police sergeant who he fears may have railroaded a colleague off the force unfairly.

It takes guts to request records from your own employer. Here, in words worthy of the Fourth of July, is St. Clair’s reason:

“I don’t see it as a fight with the entire department. I see it as a fight with what I’ve seen is a very corrupt element of the department. If I’m trying to uphold the law and the lawyers for us are blatantly breaking the law, to me, there’s no place for that.

“When I was in the military, I didn’t let things like that slide. If someone was doing something wrong, I did what I could to take care of it. I want to take ownership of the job I have, which I believe is a public service. If I see something like this, I have to do something.”

In February 2009, St. Clair asked for e-mails and other computer terminal messages sent by a police sergeant while she was on duty. He believes that the sergeant sent messages stating her intention to remove the other officer from the force.

After St. Clair filed his request, the city missed deadlines for informing him about the status of the records. After agreeing to pay $71 for the records, he didn’t hear from the city for seven months.

The city told him that parts of the records had to be edited to delete confidential information. Eventually, he received three sets of squad car messages, the kind police send from computers in their cars, but they were almost all police-related checks of license plates and other data. There were few personal e-mails.

St. Clair knows that there were many more because he received some of them originally, he says.

Now the matter is before the Texas attorney general. The city acknowledges the screw-up. Assistant City Attorney Patrick Phillips wrote to the attorney general last week that “the city acknowledges that it has failed to comply with the time periods prescribed … in seeking a ruling from your office and recognizes that this failure results in the presumption that the information is public.”

But.

But the city has another argument to make. Phillips told me the city doesn’t have the information anymore. Why? E-mails and squad car messages are kept on the city’s computer servers for “not that long.”

Once e-mails are deleted from the system and removed from the servers, “we are not required to go to backup systems and backup tapes. … The attorney general’s office considers anything on a backup tape, that it’s no longer public information. … That’s a distinction made at the attorney general’s office, and we’re bound to follow.”

He may be right. In two open-records rulings for other government bodies, released in April, the attorney general’s office says that because e-mails are sometimes deleted from computers, “the data may be overwritten and permanently removed.”

To use backup tapes to retrieve old information, the attorney general’s office says, “the city would be required to restore data from the city’s back-up tapes onto a separate server. … Therefore, we find that any of the requested information that existed only in back-up tapes at the time of the request was no longer being ‘maintained’ by the city at the time of the request, and is not public information subject to disclosure.”

Read the two April 2010 opinions here and here.

Ouch. The Watchdog doesn’t like that. Did the city miss deadlines so that the information would be gone? The Library of Congress can accept an archive of every public tweet on Twitter since 2006, so electronic storage of records by governments should not be a problem.

St. Clair wants copies of messages that he believes he is entitled to have. He will apparently never see them, but until now, nobody bothered to tell him why.

“It’s not our ideal,” Phillips said. “We know the process is ugly. … We would like it to be better.”

Happy Fourth.

# # #

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.

Smart meters become urban legends

Smart meters are coming to your house. Eventually. But as the first wave of North Texans gets those digital meters, they are becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Look at what has happened to Oncor Electric Delivery.


Dave Lieber writes about Oncor's smart meters

This smart meter exhibit created by Oncor was picketed by members of SmartURCitizens.com.


The region’s major power supplier was energized about the rollout of the 3.4 million new digital meters. Oncor promised more control over your electric usage with real-time information about your spending.

What happened instead is a public relations disaster. Oncor’s smart meters, which debuted last month in parts of Fort Worth and Arlington, are turning into an urban legend: a story everyone hears but can’t tell whether it’s true.

In this urban legend, once a smart meter is installed, customers see a sharp spike in their next monthly electric bill.


Dave Lieber writes about smart meters.

Oncor presents a "smiley face" work inside its smart meter exhibit, but when some customers get their first bills under the new metering system, they are NOT smiling.


That belief is at the heart of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Oncor customers that cites “a dramatic and unreasonable rise” in electric bills after smart-meter installations. And a residents group, SmartURCitizens.com, is protesting and raising lots of questions about the meters. Group members even picketed the shining star of Oncor’s meter rollout, its traveling smart-meter exhibit trailer.

In its first five weeks, SmartURCitizens.com picked up 500 members.

Co-founder Ree Wattner testified before the Public Utility Commission on April 1. She asked for a three-month break in smart-meter installations. That request was denied. (To watch the broadcast, go to this site and search for the April 1, 2010 meeting to PUCT Open Meeting that shows only two parts. Click on “View part 2 of conference” and scroll to 45:30 in the timeline.)

There was a good piece of news, though, which could lead to a credible resolution.

The PUC hired Navigant Consulting to conduct a three-month investigation of smart meters in Texas. And when it comes to investigating power companies here, Navigant has a strong track record.

The company completed a nearly 400-page report in 2008 on questionable practices at the Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Central Texas. (You can read that report, which to Watchdog Nation is a textbook study of 21st century bad behavior in the pubic arena — or worse — here.) Former leaders of the cooperative face felony charges.

Navigant investigator Todd Lester, who ran that PEC inquiry, is handling the smart-meter examination. He promises detailed testing of 5,000 new digital meters in labs and in the field and side by side with old-style mechanical meters. He says he will follow the data from the meter all the way through billing, looking for flaws. Results are due in three months.

Oncor spokesman Chris Schein tells me: “So far there has not been any evidence to show there are widespread problems with either the meter accuracy or the software that would warrant us stopping the installation. If we found anything that would indicate that, we would be the first to stand up and say, ‘No more.'”

Oncor acknowledges 1,800 errors out of 800,000 meter installations. Those were human errors, not meter errors, it says.

Dallas lawyer Jason Berent, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of a Heath couple who believe they were overcharged, calls the smart-meter problem “the biggest controversy sitting just below the surface.”

His clients’ bill jumped to about $1,900 a month several months after a new meter was installed. For three months, the bill faced by Robert and Jennifer Cordts was almost $5,000, the lawsuit says.

Oncor has attributed the higher bills to the cold winter.

Tricia Lambert, the other founder of SmartURCitizens, tells me that Oncor’s strategy “is to discredit us as hystericals.”

She says calls are coming from people who are getting their electricity cut off because they can’t pay big winter bills, and she doesn’t believe that cold weather is the reason the bills shot up.

“These are hardworking Texans,” she says. “They are not ne’er-do-wells that don’t want to pay their bills. That’s who we’re fighting for.”

Schein says Oncor wants to help, not fight back. He says Oncor is doing everything it can to help customers understand their situations by “answering thousands of calls.”

One customer even sought his help on Facebook, and Schein said he happily obliged.

Tip: Become friends with Chris Schein on Facebook. After your smart meter is installed, if the next bill is high, you can either send a message or “poke” him.

# # #

Want more? Read this latest Dave Lieber blog post about a Grapevine man who has a theory about why people believe smart meters are charging them more.

Dave Lieber writes the Dave Lieber Watchdog column at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where this report originally appeared.

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