At Texas Legislature, clouds roll in during Sunshine Week

A Colleyville man didn’t have a great Sunshine Week, which was created to promote open government. Louis Womack recently read in the Star-Telegram about an internal investigation at the Colleyville Police Department, and he sent city officials written questions.

Is the investigation complete? What was the outcome? How much did it cost?

Good questions from a taxpayer watchdogging his city.

But the answer he received perplexed him: “Please be advised that the Public Information Act does not obligate the city to respond to questions,” Assistant City Manager Kelly Cooper wrote, adding that Womack could refine his open-records request to seek documents.

Only Womack didn’t file an open-records request; he just asked questions. He didn’t know that officials don’t have to provide answers, just documents.

City spokeswoman Mona Gandy explains: “Typically, we would have gone to some effort to explain how you make a public information request. That’s not what happened in this case. We’re going to consider this a lesson learned.”

This week, the city added language to its Web site to explain open-records procedures.

The Sunshine state?

When it comes to making public records available, Texans do have something to celebrate this Sunshine Week, which ends Saturday. A recent survey by several journalism organizations examined how good a job all 50 states do of making records available on the Internet. Texas received a perfect score, the only state to do so.

Cue The Watchdog’s applause!

But The Watchdog can’t celebrate after examining some bills filed at the Legislature.

“A lot of bills scale back the availability of public information,” says Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association Legislative Advisory Committee.

Here’s one: House Bill 3641 by freshman Rep. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels. It would allow a government entity to determine whether someone requesting open records is an “abusive requestor” who submits requests “to harass, abuse, or waste public funds and/or time of public officials or employees.”

The bill allows a government entity to sue to stop the requestor and halt the release of information for up to 90 days.

Miller did not return a call. But Comal County Judge Danny Scheel told The Watchdog that he asked Miller to file the bill to stop Central Texas newspaper publisher Doug Kirk from filing what Scheel considers harassing requests.

Some people, he said, “purposely clog up our systems with open-records requests to be able to get off our backs. These are the kind of people we want.”

Scheel said 90 percent of the requests to the county come from Kirk, who runs weeklies in Bulverde and Canyon Lake and who unsuccessfully ran against Scheel. Kirk doesn’t always pick up and pay for information he requests, Scheel said.

“We’ve been dealing with this monkey for years,” the judge added.

Kirk told me that the county stalls and so he gets what he needs elsewhere. “They dodge the questions I ask,” he said.

Hartman, a newspaper executive based outside Houston, said that the bill would punish a number of people for the actions of one.

Here are other open-government bills on The Watchdog worry list:

Senate Bill 280 (Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth) would make public employees’ home addresses, home telephone numbers, dates of birth and Social Security numbers confidential. Open-records advocates say they have no desire to know a Social Security number. A home address and date of birth, however, are important identifiers that allow watchdogs to search government databases and find, for example, whether a person is double dipping with two public jobs.

The public would face greater difficulty learning about government nepotism and the background of public employees, including any criminal records, too. “We strongly oppose this,” Hartman says.

House Bill 649 (Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas) would allow property owners to remove their names from appraisal district public records posted online.

“There’s no compelling reason to do this,” Hartman says. “There are no problems” with the information in the public domain.

If the bill passes, the public would not be able to find out, for example, if political cronies got sweetheart appraisals from crooked assessors.

Elected officials and others could disguise bribes through property transfers that nobody would ever know about.

Senate Bill 375 (John Carona, R-Dallas) would allow the Transportation Department to keep specific vehicle accident records confidential.

Texans could not learn about the most dangerous bridges, intersections and roadways, which was the intent of the original request for the data, says Brian Collister, a San Antonio TV reporter and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“This huge, great resource on motor-vehicle accidents would be sealed off from the public,” he says.

Hartman says the number of bills cutting off information is alarming because “the more people know what our government does, the more effective and responsive it can be.”

Other worrisome bills Here are other bills that could hinder public oversight:

  • Senate Bill 253 (Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls) would allow county and municipal governments to award contracts worth up to $50,000 without public bids. The limit is now $25,000.
  • Senate Bill 624 (Royce West, D-Dallas) would allow changes of $50,000 or less to school district contracts without school board approval — and public notice.
  • Senate Bill 460 (Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Galena Park) would keep secret some information pertaining to personnel hearings for police and firefighters.
  • Senate Bill 1127 (Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio) would keep secret some information about components used in creating customized drugs and medical devices at pharmacies.

Track bills Follow bills through the Texas Legislature by tracking them at www.legis.state.tx.us. Sign up for e-mail alerts.

Find out who your legislator is at votesmart.org.

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