Category Archives: texas open records

Texas transparency in trouble

There are over 100 bills in this session of the Texas State Legislature that would restrict the public’s access to information about what government officials are up to.

Great use of FOIA: Case #372

The Dallas Morning News did a great investigation recently using the Texas Public Information Act.

Judge Keller’s disclosures omit nearly $2 million in real estate, public records show.

The story is about Sharon Keller, the chief judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In 2007, Keller declined to hear a last-minute appeal of Michael Richard, who was executed later that night.

This led to a complaint against Keller by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct. Keller is seeking to have those charges dismissed on the grounds that mounting a defense would be financially ruinous. Judges in Texas are required to disclose their financial holdings. A year ago, when Keller disclosed hers, she omitted to disclose about $2 million in real estate holdings. The fact that she owns this much real estate might undermine her claim that she would be financially ruined by defending against the judicial conduct charges.

The Dallas Morning News knows about this because they pored over public records of real estate holdings.

Besides defending herself against judicial conduct charges, Keller may now have to defend herself against a separate set of charges having to do with failure to disclose all her real estate holdings.

Marsha Farmer, RIP

Marsha Farmer died on Friday, December 26…the same day that the Houston Chronicle published a front-page article about her role in exposing gross waste and mismanagement as a City of Houston-run home repair program.

Marsha Farmer was a determined, persistent whistleblower and open records activist. It was significantly due to records she obtained through the use of open records laws that she was able to establish that contractors in the home repair program routinely over-billed the city for excessive materials and for work that wasn’t performed.

When Farmer told the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program of her discoveries, they initiated an investigation that led to a requirement that the city’s mismanaged program repay $15.5 million to HUD for federal grant money it spent that went nowhere.

Farmer lived in a house that was eligible for home repair under the program she exposed. Her home was flooded by Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001, leading to an aggravated mold infestation. Her attempts to get the city’s home repair program to work on the house led to her suspicion that the agency was mismanaged.

After the Houston Chronicle covered her story in December, the city program agreed to make repairs … new electrical wiring, new siding, structural repairs and new drywall in rooms affected by mold for a total estimated cost of $45,000 to $50,000. She told the paper, “I should end up with a good, strong house that’s ready for another 50 years.”

Marsha Farmer, RIP.

State employee salaries in Texas

Texas Watchdog has posted a database of the 1,761 Texas state employees who are paid upwards of $100,000.

The highest paid employee makes $530,595.

Whatever anyone believes about the connection or non-connection between the phrases “Republican Party” and “fiscal conservatism” on a federal level, do GOP-dominated state legislatures and state governments practice fiscal conservatism when there is very little standing in their way? Anyone? Anyone?

The fight to keep records closed

In evolutionary biology, the concept of an arm’s race is used to explain why over time, one species never gets the complete upper hand over the species it competes with. When a species evolves a competitive advantage–say, a hawk gaining keener eyesight with which to spot mice scurrying about far below–mice will evolve a tendency to hide when they spot a hawk shadow. (Or they’ll all be eaten up, which is another story.)

I was reminded of this recently when considering some of the Texas transparency headlines. People who are advocating for open records do this, that and the other to advance their cause. At the same time, people who want fewer records opent o the public are not standing idly by.

Time for a FOIAsphere round-up

I continue to be impressed and surprised at how much great FOIA-blogging comes across my RSS transom.

Our featured post is from Kentucky, where investigative blogger Ed Springston has been blogging up a storm, partly based on the results of open record requests he filed, about mega-problems with the Inspections, Permits and Licensing part of Louisville’s government.

Some of the best in the last few weeks:

Georgia:

According to Sabernomics, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners at a recent meeting approved a $19 million budget increase to fund a new stadium for the Gwinnett Braves. And I quote, “It turns out that though the Board didn’t mention a word of the cost increase until the Friday before Labor Day, and voted on it the following Tuesday without discussion, county officials were aware of the cost increase well before this time.”

Michigan:

The blog produced by the Michigan State University Libraries points out that when Kwame lost, freedom of information won.

New York:

I get why some public officials aren’t in a hurry to hand over the records they’re asked to hand over. But public health information? The spread of the West Nile Virus? What the requesters wanted was information about the location in their county of mosquito traps where mosquitoes with West Nile were picked up, and they got stonewalled. Unbelievable.

Tennessee

Ben Cunningham says that there’s a move a-foot in Tennessee to imperil citizen access to records.

Cup of Joe Powell says that’s why it’s important to act now.

It’s a regular Tennessee FOIA blogswarm!

Texas:

In Dallas, Texas, there’s a race for sheriff. There’s also an elections board in the county. The elections board maintains the legally required campaign finance disclosure reports for the sheriff campaigns. That’s how they roll here in the Big D tells the rest of the story, from Texas Watchdog.

Vermont:

The Vermont Tiger is not the first to notice that open, public access to documents helps everyone. But not all bloggers take advantage of that insight to go ahead and file a FOIA request.

School board campaign finance reports: MIA

Blogger Charles Kuffner at Off the Kuff notes with surprise that ten school districts in the vicinity of Houston, Texas don’t include information on their websites about campaign spending for candidates for their respective school boards.

My favorite quote:

Sonal Bhuchar, president of the Fort Bend school board, said she does not see the need for online reports because “anyone can request paper copies.”

Here’s the original reporting from the Houston Chronicle:

Houston schools prefer offline campaign finance reports.