In an article headlined Strategies for negotiating open records requests, Temple Daily Telegram reporter Alex Wukman used one of my recent Bell County public information inquiries as a basis for county officials to detail their take on how governments can and cannot respond. Fulfillment of the request related to former Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales was offered with a $50,000+ price tag. The article more interestingly, though, creates a sense that the county is double-talking on public information to hide its use of a double-standard.
Morales, a long-term county employee later elected to the Temple City Council, became the center of two controversies in late 2013. Though elected to the council in May 2011, it wasn’t until September 2013 that Morales and other city officials reportedly learned of her ineligibility to run for that office – ineligibility based on a “Conflict of Interest” clause in Temple’s 91-year-old city charter.
Early November brought an announcement of Morales’ Oct. 1 retirement from her 40+ year position as Director of Social Services at the HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Center, a county outreach department that helps connect area residents with a wide range of community-based often taxpayer-funded services and programs. At that time it was additionally confirmed by Bell County Judge Jon Burrows that Morales would serve as a consultant for the HELP Center and receive compensation comparable to her former salary.
Morales’ eligibility for office wasn’t the only source of scrutiny during this time as the Temple Daily Telegram had also filed a Public Information Act (PIA) request seeking to learn if Morales violated county employee policies and/or state election laws by utilizing county employees and resources during her 2011 city council campaign.
In response to learning of the PIA request from Burrows, Morales asked one of her employees, Mari Paul, to delete potentially compromising computer files. Paul later filed a complaint against Morales. An investigation resulted in a criminal charge with Morales accepting a plea arrangement on misdemeanor Destruction, Removal or Alteration of Public Information.
She also ultimately resigned from her city council position hours before being removed from officer, declined acceptance of a term for which she was running unopposed, but has now filed as a candidate for a July 19 special election called to fill the position.
The PIA request
The PIA request referenced in Wukman’s article was submitted Feb. 12, 2013, and asked for copies of emails from Judy Morales’ county email address Feb. 1, 2011 through Nov. 30, 2013.
In response, Bell County Assistant County Attorney Darrell Guess first wrote:
As to the Judy Morales emails. There are over 80,000 emails. The cost to produce this request has been estimated by Mr. Chandler in technology services. It will be an overwhelming undertaking and at great cost. It is estimated in excess of $56,000.00 and we are not able to give you a time frame due to the technical difficulties. The cost is so high due to the fact each email must be reviewed and redacted as to any personal, confidential, HIPPA protected, and other excluded identifiers that we are required under the PIA to protect of the individual clients. The man power required is extensive.
He later revised that figure and offered this breakdown of the labor costs:
Judy Morales email cost (Feb 1, 2011 to Nov 30, 2013)
Charge Schedule 70.10
(1) Standard Paper $0.10 cent per page x 80118 = $8011.80
(3) Labor Charge
(a) Programming (to extract emails) – $28.50 per hour = 8 hours time to extract 80118 emails = $228
(b) Locating, compiling and reproducing (need to review each email for redaction) – $15.00 per hour = 1.75
minutes per email x 80118 / 60 minutes/hour = 2336.77 hours x $15 = $35051.62
(4) Overhead charge = 20% of labor = $35279.62 x .20 = $7055.92
(7) Computer resources
(B) Client Server – $2.20 per hour x 8 hours = $17.60
(D) PC or LAN – $1.00 per hour x 8 hours = $8.00
(9) Postage = Actual Cost
Total Cost = $50,372.95 plus postage
Asked for a statement by the Telegram, my response was:
The excessive amount is clearly an impractical option. A Daily Telegram request for similar information prompted some of the controversy that now surrounds Morales. Was the paper offered comparable pricing for its requested information? What expenses were involved for the county to fulfill that request? Are all requestors treated equally under the law? One has to wonder. I don’t deny the scope of the task, but with large amounts of information, requestors are often offered options such as an on-site review prior to duplication and/or digital versions instead of hard copies. No such alternatives were presented.
Are all requestors treated equally under the law? This question becomes more poignant in light of Wukman’s article and the Telegram’s recent sharing of Morales’ emails received through the paper’s PIA request.
In the Telegram article, Bell County officials make the the following points:
- Per Burrows, “no review or digital versions were offered to Anderson was because it would violate provisions of the Public Information Act.” He further explained that the Texas Attorney General’s office also disallowed setting up a terminal for on-site review of the emails.
- Per County Attorney Jim Nichols, emails sent to county officials are public record though, according to Section 552.137 of the Texas Government Code, the email addresses of individual senders are not and instead must be redacted prior to any document’s release. “We have to print the email out, black out the protected information hold it up to the light to make sure that it can’t be seen and then scan it back in,” Nichols told the Telegram. Addresses, per government code, “belonging to individuals with a contractual relationship or who are seeking a contractual relationship with a governmental body are not considered confidential.”
- Nichols also discussed hypothetical violations should an individual email about a food bank or other HELP Center services saying how a “payday lender would love to know what county residents need money fast.”
In March, Bell County Commissioner Bill Schumann used a tea party open mic forum to address similar concerns regarding HELP Center clients. He asked who would want their seeking to access public programs being public information?
At that same meeting, Paul described how prior to leaving employment with the county, she was informed by Human Resources Director Steve Cook of a PIA request seeking her emails for the larger part of 2013. Per Paul, the charge assessed on her emails was in no way proportional to the $50,000+ quoted for Morales’ correspondence.
Morales email contents
Wukman’s article certainly brought new interest to the Morales emails released to the Telegram. Two folders, an Inbox folder with 9,447 emails and a Sent folder with 1,875, contain a total of 11,322 emails.
In an ongoing review process, approximately 500 of the emails have been opened. To date, no redactions of any type are in evidence. Emails reviewed include legitimate communications related to the HELP Center and associated programs. Other content identified is:
- Information regarding Morales’ 2011 city council election including campaign materials, planned activities and voter information. An email trail in which a county employee offers purchase of an ad in a church fund-raising publication to “help people who do not know you” was also found.
- Contact information – names, emails and phone numbers – of individuals seeking HELP Center assistance.
- Communications with members of varying civic organizations and other institutions not clearly tied to official county HELP Center operations (Citizens for Progress, LULAC, 2011 Temple ISD pro-bond election coalition and Temple College) with numerous personal emails and cell phone numbers included.
- Name and other personal contact information of what appears a former employee filing a “complaint/grievance.” The email also includes a partial statement of events/position.
Preliminary findings suggest that the information handling deemed as required and generating considerable expense for my public information request wasn’t performed for this subset of the same information requested by the Telegram. And, it appears to have been produced at no cost to the Telegram.
A new public information request has been submitted to Bell County seeking a copy or other photographic representation indicating specific text of the open records request referenced in the Dec. 1, 2013 Temple Daily Telegram article entitled Morales sought to delete emails, files. Documentation indicating no or any charge(s) was also requested.
Meanwhile, as the email review continues, several points are worth noting. First, government officials attempting to manipulate the media (or enlist complicit reporters) in order to falsely influence public perceptions is nothing new.
That said, this apparent attempt was derailed thanks to forward-thinking management at the Telegram recognizing the value cooperative media efforts bring. Providing the public with credible, reliable, honestly-presented information about news events and other issues of interest is a shared goal.
And finally, this apparent situation reminds that people must stay vigilant in protecting our right to public information. Danger exists when government chooses to apply laws with prejudice in order to protect its own interests.