Do You Believe in Open Government (Texas)


 

Do You Believe in Open Government (Texas)
 


3 March 2017 at 7:26:27 PM
salon

Reposting this.

Do you believe in open government? Do you believe you get to be informed about what your elected officials are doing and what types of spending decisions they make with your tax money ? Then, you agree with the preamble to the Texas Public Information Act, Govt Code Chapter 552.001

Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.

Remember that $80,000 that was given by the 4b (GREDC)  and voted on by City of Glen Rose for the “Land of the Dinosaurs” show, the one with the dancing, singing and mechanical dinosaurs? I wondered what the terms of the contract were, ie, how was LOD going to pay back this money, on what terms and when. I found, by  asking for the contract through a written request to the City of Glen Rose, that the money had been given to them without any written contract.  Supposedly this was an investment, but an auditor came to the City to tell them, after the fact, that the City could not invest but should have issued a promissory note. The City has never recovered that money and it seems to have been written off the books in the last couple of years.

How about that Hooter’s receipt I found while looking at the receipts for those building out the cabin and refreshing the grounds at Oakdale Park a few years back? One of the workers, using part of a great deal of voted upon bond money, had decided to treat himself to lunch in Fort Worth on the city dime.  I discovered that by going down to the City of Glen Rose and asking to inspect the bank statements and receipts for certain months. I always tend to wonder, when money is flowing like sap from a maple tree, if those using it are watching it closely. A Hooter’s lunch may sound minor to some, but it’s one aspect of why taxpayers should be aware of how money is being spent and not frivolously wasted, pennies lead to dimes to dollars.

I’ve been asking for public information records for some years and, while I would never claim to be *the* expert, can definitely point people to how to find out how to do records of their own. First, the Texas Attorney General’s office is the entity that governs open records; their website includes How To, a public information handbook, frequently asked questions, what are appropriate charges for information, and how do you complain if things don’t go smoothly. https://texasattorneygeneral.gov/og/open-government  Each local government entity, such as the Somervell County clerk’s office, has a poster which includes your rights, their responsibilities, and procedures to obtain information. You can choose, by asking the local government subdivision, whether you would like to inspect the records in person or receive copies or both, and  they cannot ask why you want the records.  You can ask for anything that actually exists as a record, including reports, bank statements, audio, video. There may be a charge if your request involves a deal of work to round up, but you may also inspect records in person; I bring my iphone for pictures. You can specify  a charge beyond which you don’t agree to pay, like “Not beyond $25” and the entity usually will try to let you know how much it will cost so that you can decide to accept or perhaps narrow your request for less records. If you don’t agree with the charge, there is an AG office for contesting them, as well as checking what a reasonable cost might be. I usually send requests through email to the person who is listed as the appropriate “Public Information Officer”, ie, has been through training and has a certificate.  And I like, unless I am inspecting documents in person, to receive back records digitally through email if possible.

Recently, I was attending a public meeting, a budget workshop, and heard the auditor say that there was a budget transfer of over $4700 for the county attorney’s office for outside attorney expenses. The elected officials voted to pay it but I could myself see no information on what it was, as there was no information on budget transfers in the agenda. I did an open records request to the auditor and asked for a copy of the budget transfer as well as any supporting receipts, invoices, etc and found out that it was a prominent civil case that the State of Texas has responsibility for ,  and Somervell County is paying. I as a taxpayer wanted to know what that money was for and you should too.

I have looked at countless records involving the hospital district, including the doctors salaries that are part of the budget, insurance policies, auditing reports, lease cost of Pecan Family Medical Center, the 501a doctor contracts, and complaints. Glen Rose Medical Center is a public entity that takes taxpayer money so is accountable to any citizen who wishes to inspect information on how it running.

What happens if a governmental entity believes it has a valid, legal reason to prevent you from getting records? Within 10 business days, it must request an opinion from the Texas Attorney General and inform you that’s what it’s doing. You can then write your own comments to go to the AG as well to press your case. Does this mean that a governmental entity can wait, every time, for anything, 10 business days? No, they are to get your information promptly. Some wrongly believe they can wait till the last minute, even if they aren’t going to the AG, to get your information, but this is a basic misunderstanding of the Texas Public Information Act.  If they don’t answer you back within 10 business days, you can file a complaint with the AG’s office yourself.

When I heard that there was someone who had embezzled money from a church and yet still worked in a prominent position that involved personal records, and privacy at a local public entity, I did an open records request to both the governmental entity and the sheriff’s department to ask for the police record, as well as to inspect the personnel file. I also went to the courthouse to look at the actual case. You can check through the computer system in the stacks in the back for the case # and if the documents associated with it are not on the system, can ask the clerks to see the case. It turned out that the person, according to the information, had used a sizeable chunk of the money stolen to send the daughter to Disney World. I questioned why this person, who had pled guilty to a 3rd degree felony, was still in such a sensitive position with such accessibility to a wide range of personal information.

I have not always gotten every record I asked for. I used to regularly get mugshots from the sheriff’s department and posted them along with the jail logs.  At some point the sheriff decided to change his policy to prevent me from getting the mugshots until/unless the person who had been jailed had been convicted in court.  He made an exception for himself this year when he sent out a mugshot to numerous news agencies before the person in question was tried in court. I believe that was an arbitrary use of power to make such an exception for him that isn’t applied to the citizenry and hope to see it changed in the future; especially since every county in the areas surrounding us have mugshots available upon arrest.

Another time, a friend of mine told me she had been investigated by the local sheriff’s office for writing a letter to the editor of the paper critical of a government official. I asked for, and received the sheriff incident report showing me who had made the complaint (it was the elected official) but could not, despite best efforts, find out why in the world that was even done. Thin skin is not a reason to harass someone exercising freedom of speech. Even so, being able to ask and contend for it is what the sunshine of the public information act is for.

As a side note, it is critical that the governmental entities take seriously their duty to citizens to make sure every meeting is recorded (best) or available in minutes; if they have a website the information must be posted there, including agendas so that we all know when meetings are and don’t have to necessarily hike down to the square to look at the kiosk or the door of Town Hall.

I philosophically believe that citizens not only have the right but should exercise oversight of government for the issues they are most concerned with.  After all, it is not discretionary for them to collect our taxes, so who isn’t eager to know what they’re doing with the money. Elected officials may not have the same interest, attention or time for your concern, and you are empowered to find out what you want to know through the Texas Public Information Act. Or at least, even if you are ultimately denied what you were interested in knowing, if you don’t ask, the answer is *always* going to be no.  Our state, Texas, not only allows, but again from the preamble, strongly encourages its people to be involved in knowing what is going on in government. And that definitely includes you. 


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