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Thoughts on Texas open government as the sun sets on Sunshine Week

As Sunshine Week comes to a close, this seems a good time to take one more look at a few Texas open government issues around the state of Texas.

Earlier this week, Bell County Commissioner Bill Schumann used a tea party open mic forum to address the $50,000 price tag Bell County placed on the fulfillment of a Public Information Act request seeking nearly three years of emails generated by Judy Morales, the former Director of Social Services at the county-managed HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Center who just this week resigned as city of Temple mayor pro tem due to a pending criminal charge of Destruction, Removal or Alteration of Public Information as well as controversy surrounding her initial eligibility to have run and then served in office.

Schumann explained how Morales’ emails contain much personal data related to HELP Center clients. With this data of a privileged nature, the costs of identifying, redacting and then duplicating the information for release comprise the bulk of the quoted price. He further described such activity as not a good use of taxpayer dollars thereby necessitating the expense be passed on to the requestor.

When questioned that the information should theoretically have already been collected and provided to county law enforcement as Morales has reportedly been the subject of an intense investigation, Schumann responded that law enforcement was exempt from the confidentiality status making the redaction and other special handling a non-issue.

Mari Paul, a Bell County employee who filed a complaint over Morales’ instruction to delete potentially compromising computer files, was at this meeting and reminded 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 that quoted for Morales’ correspondence.

After identifying myself to the group as the “culprit” who filed the PIA request, I then spoke regarding transparency and Sunshine Week, a time when media and media advocates promote the importance of open government and taxpayer access to public information. With an understanding that HELP Center clients would logically submit applications containing personal information that are then maintained on file, it’s curious that large amounts of client information would be in routine emails.

Schumann’s sensitivity to proper uses of taxpayer dollars is appreciated, but of course, that sensitivity has yet to extend to the R-word – restitution – with regard to what Morales has cost Bell County taxpayers. Per Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols, “there is convincing evidence that there was a violation of campaign or abuse of office statutes.” These violations are likely Morales’ misuse of taxpayer-funded resources and personnel to perform non-county activities.

County officials could bolster their own credibility with regard to protecting public funds and resources if, besides requiring private citizens to pay for public information, the current administration were to undertake an effort to recover public assets squandered on their watch.

Attention to this PIA request also comes not just because of the large price, but because the price also suggests a seemingly obstructionist move to thwart the disclosure of information that could cast further unflattering light on the conduct or activities of public officials and their allies.

With both Bell County and the city of Temple seeking to avoid being cast in a negative light, public confidence in government is low. The public is skeptical that the treatment of Morales’ workplace policy violations and alleged criminal acts is akin to the treatment less politically-connected citizens would enjoy.

Morales herself fueled her situation’s cronyism implications Monday during a special called city council meeting by telling her fellow council members ““there are some major issues that I’m concerned about within the city that I don’t think you want me to bring forward today and I won’t.”

The mayor pro tem’s supporters immediately acknowledged agreement while others audibly questioned if the statement was a threat. Having just minutes before spoken of her commitment to serving the public and to protecting interests of Temple residents, Morales’ possession of information related to “major issues” over which she is “concerned” would seem information to which the public has every right to know, information that should be released immediately. (Click here for video.)

Equal protection of all under the law should certainly rule the day, but concerns exist that reality is more likely preferential protection for some by the law.

Jim Hemphill, an attorney who works with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFTX), called the $50,000 pricing “very unusual.” While disputes over costs routinely occur, he termed the pricing as “above what is usually seen.”

When asked about the potentially confidential nature of HELP Center client information, he said that things such as Social Security numbers and other information specifically protected under federal laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) would fall into that category. With limited information, it’s difficult to determine if all client information would be similarly subject.

Law enforcement, he agreed, would likely be held to the same confidentiality of information as the original recipient. Hemphill did suggest a narrowing of the request by specifying the exclusion of emails including client information could facilitate a more cost-efficient fulfillment of the desired public information.

Upon learning of the $50,000 price, the Temple Daily Telegram ran a front-page article discussing the county’s response that included these comments:

“The excessive amount is clearly an impractical option. A Temple Daily Telegram request for similar information prompted some of the controversy that now surrounds Morales,” Anderson said Tuesday.

Anderson questioned the county’s pricing policies.

“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,” Anderson said.

Anderson admitted Tuesday the amount of information she requested is extensive.

“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,” she said.

With a not uncommon mindset that segregates online media from “real” media, online journalists are sometimes excluded from media lists for notifications of news conferences and other events. Similarly, levels of cooperation in other information-gathering activities vary.

And Hemphill was not alone in his assessment of the $50,000 information price tag. Catherine Robb, another FOIFTX attorney, told the Telegram:

That’s a pretty hefty charge for something like that. It seems pretty steep and not within most budgets. It’s certainly not just pocket change considering what you get at the end of the day. The income of most Texans wouldn’t support paying a price like that.

“That sounds like an extremely high bill,” Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Foundation, said. “I have to wonder if the time and labor are possibly being overstated by the county.”

Governments resistant to transparency are a troubling commodity. And though trendy these days, claiming to be transparent is not the same as being transparent.

And Bell County is hardly alone as party noteworthy in the movement calling for increased transparency and open government.

As part of Sunshine Week, the Denton Record-Chronicle attempted to review personal financial statements for 53 county and city officials, but instead found that “efforts to make the information public have fallen short, in part because the documents are hard to find, the rules governing them are complicated and the disclosures are hard to interpret.”

A recent Dallas Morning News op-ed entitled Transparency is hope for citizens, foil for officeholders featured the 2011 top 10 of Texas cities (per 100,000 residents) filing requests with the Texas attorney general to keep government information secret.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle similarly asked the six university systems and their flagship institutions for numbers on 2013 information requests and on requests for which an attorney general ruling was sought.

A court case involving the Morning News and the North Central Texas Regional Certification Agency, a largely taxpayer-funded entity that certifies companies as eligible for minority set–aside programs involving millions of dollars in contract awards by local governments, reminds that government agencies are also subject to public information disclosures.

The Morning News op-ed opens with this Joseph Pulitzer quote:

There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.

To protect public interests and public dollars, an absence of secrecy – or in this case, a strengthening of government transparency – is required.

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