Starting this week, we’ll be posting one interview each week for a year with a Sunshine Activist.
What is a Sunshine Activist? We define it as a non-professional who files open records requests.
(Our popular Sunshine Troublemaker Award is for people who are maligned for filing open records requests.)
We’ll be publishing the “Sunshine Activist” interviews here and in a special, locked, area at WikiFOIA.
We’re proud to offer our first interview with Joey Dauben, who publishes The Ellis County Observer.
- What year did you file your first open records request?
I do believe my first-ever open records request was filed in August of 1998, while as a reporter for DeSoto-based Focus Daily News (south of Dallas.) It wasn’t until a few years later, in 2001, while a reporter at The Ellis County Press, that I filed an open records request at least twice a week (to cities, school districts, counties and state agencies.)
- What documents were you looking for?
I was never good at math, but I was fascinated with budget numbers for taxing entities (cities, schools, etc.) I would mainly request budgets, specific line items within budgets, and the most popular, salary information for judges, public officials, etc. Surprisingly, I found out that public employees absolutely abhor having their salary information posted on the Internet.
- Did you get those documents?
I received most of them, but when dealing with very controversial documents – as in, when the newspaper I wrote for was openly working on investigations into corrupt public officials – the state Attorney General’s office was always contacted by our local prosecutor’s office. They claimed that this was done to “make sure” information was allowed for public consumption, but the truth is (opinion here) they deliberately stalled open records requests. That hasn’t stopped folks down here, good friends of mine that is, from filing open records complaints for doing that though.
- What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?
Having a deadline on say, Sept. 15, filing the records request on Sept. 8, and then having the county attorney’s office (Ellis County is notorious for this) send the request to Greg Abbott’s office for a ruling. It drove me nuts, but it was always fun to report on our citizen-open records activists filing complaints. That drove more of my open records news headlines than getting the actual information we were requesting.
- How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?
Our county auditor will give me any document, packet of information, folder, etc. free of charge and without even filing an open records request. However, that is definitely rare, and not the norm (he says he hates dealing with all the paperwork.) Usually it’s within the state-mandated 10 days, but normally it’s a day or so. Exceptions, of course, are when the county attorneys get involved and stall everything by sending for an AG ruling.
- About how many open records requests have you filed?
Over 1,000 with no plans to stop.
- How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?
For one thing, I actually copied and pasted an Open Records Request on my blog, so as to allow folks who read the Observer a chance to submit their own [Link: http://elliscountyobserver.com/?p=255] — and I usually inform them that e-mailing the requests, rather than faxing or sending certified mail, works just as good. When I obtain the needed information though (The Ellis County Observer is rife with pages and pages of open records info that I’ve obtained), I’ll type out the juicy stuff, or I’ll scan and make it available via .pdfs or .jpg images.
- Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?
The fees are a pain. If it becomes more than $5 or $6, I’ll just go in and look at it myself.
- What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?
More readership, more hits on particular open records-related posts, as well as phone calls telling me that “Joey Dauben’s Ellis County Observer is being talked about at Such-and-Such coffee shop.” When readers call or e-mail me telling me that a certain post has been printed numerous times, I know then that it’s been effective. Now here are two very big examples of a particular political event that occurred specifically on the Observer’s open records efforts:
- The Dallas Observer carried a major feature article on our district judge: Bully on the Bench. The article was done after I supplied their Observer with a list of names, numbers, summary information, and links to my blog posts relating to specific cases. This article hit earlier in the year, and it was *the* most talked about article for about a month.
- Last year, this same district judge had an opponent for the first time in 19 years. I got word that our prosecutors were about to argue for a plea bargain for an accused child molester — but they asked for a continuance because of the heated primary. I blogged about this for a good two weeks, followed up with open records requests seeking the nature of the allegations and the dates and times of the subsequent hearings and trial information. The Ellis County Observer kept the heat on our prosecutors for a solid two weeks before our judge finally gave the guy 8 years in prison; the prosecutors wanted a conviction plea in exchange for 10 years probation. Come to find out, there have been 50+ cases within the past two years that resulted in convictions-for-10-years-probation.
- Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?
Not once. I used to write for The Ellis County Press, an independent weekly paper that was more like a paper from the 1700s than one today (we exposed wrongdoing.) However, they wanted to go in a more “community” journalism direction, and so I had no other choice but to launch The Ellis County Observer. Every once in a while, the local daily (establishment) paper will mention, “reports circulating on the Internet,” or “blogs,” but never actually identify the ECO in print.
- What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?
Publish when you file, what you obtain, when you’re being screwed around, and what the actions are after all of these are done. When government gets blogged, changes start happening. Then again, when they get put on TV, changes start happening. But I’ve come to find out that blogs will do more for the cause than any other media outlet. I’ve also learned that time and time again, our newspapers are in bed with the very entities that they are supposed to be covering.
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
I wish I had a bigger budget so I could publish on a full-time basis. I eventually want to make a living “telling the truth,” but things are slowly getting there.
- If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?
Everything would be free (no fees for filing, no fees for obtaining), every bit of information would be posted on a blog or state website (minus the personal SSNs or things like that), and every agency or entity’s open records chief would be required to hold weekly “open hall meetings” to which journalists and citizens could get anything they wanted. Then again, if they appointed me to be Texas’ go-to guy for open records, that would be fine too.
- Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?
No, but I should.
- Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?
I’d love it, especially if we can make a concerted effort to pry open our judicial system. That system above anything else is the hardest to crack. Court hearings go on every day, but people wouldn’t know about the injustices unless a real big story comes out, or a big case goes to trial. More attention needs to be put on the judiciary, especially at a local level.
Joey, thanks for taking the time to share your story with our readers and for all of your hard work in helping the sun shine in.