“Transparency” is the buzzword in government these days. That means an open government in which taxpayers can see what elected officials are doing with the people's money and what kinds of decisions our leaders are making.
It also means a government — whether at the federal, state or local level — that gives citizens access to open meetings and to open records, which they are entitled to under law.
Here's how a recent Associated Press story put it in summing up a lawsuit filed in Austin over open records requests:
“It's one of the most enduring conflicts surrounding public access — is there ever a situation where too much is, really, too much? When following the law puts the rights of a few ahead of the larger mission of a public agency?”
That conflict is roiling in our own community.
On one side is Debbie Harper, who started the Somervell County Salon Web site as a way to blog about subjects that interest her. Open government is her passion. She and her husband, Paul, who are both tech savvy from their stints with Microsoft Corp., post minutes and videos of public meeting and financial records of governmental entities, including the Glen Rose City Council, the Somervell County Commissioners Court and county departments, the Glen Rose Independent School District, the Somervell County Water District and the county's Hospital Authority Board.
“For five years I have been going to government meetings and recording them and putting them online — or getting the audio and putting it online,” Harper told me. “I do this because I genuinely believe in open government by the people and for the people, plus I love having an outlet for my opinions. Call me a sap if you want. Sometimes I write about local things I see going on that, gee, I have an opinion on and I back it up with stuff I read or record.”
On the other side are multiple government officials from these councils and boards who have complained to me that Harper's flurry of open records requests cost them too much time and money. She's been called a muckraker, a troublemaker and someone with “an agenda.” Some complain that they practically need to hire a full-time clerk to fulfill Harper's open records requests.
Harper believes in what she does and she admits she's not out to win any popularity contests and doesn't care if some people don't like her poking around in what she sees as the people's business. She views it as her right and she has the law on her side. And her work has done a lot of good things for Glen Rose and the county's citizens. For one thing, anyone who misses a meeting can check out the video, audio and minutes posted on the Somervell County Salon Web site.
The Harpers also have taken on government boards and councils for not posting notices of meetings within the required advance time.
Like the Harpers, I believe in open government. Taxpayers have a right to know what elected officials are doing with their money and what decisions are being made. They have a right to know how safe their streets are, how well their children are being educated, how the hospital is functioning and what projects are being funded that affect their lives.
I don't know many people on either side of the debate who would take issue with that. It's part of living in a democratic society.
But what happens when a meeting is closed, or a notice of a public meeting isn't posted, as required by law, or officials balk at open records requests? What happens when people protest and demand accountability (which doesn't happen nearly enough in Glen Rose, at least, publicly). When such requests mean an employee has to take time away from other responsibilities to make copies or to research records?
In other words, are we willing to deal with inconvenience and even pay for open government? How far are we willing to go to keep government transparent?
I've filed open records requests myself and my requests weren't always welcomed. I recall one of my students at Tarleton State University, where I taught as an adjunct, and a response he received from a Texas police department when he asked for the records related to officers' use of Taser stun guns. The department said he could have the records — for $365,000. The Attorney General subsequently ordered the department to turn over the records for a reasonable amount.
I've complained about closed meetings to the AG's office. And I agree with Harper that the City Council has gone into executive sessions and discussed business — such as Glen Rose signage issue — that probably should have been discussed openly. The Somervell County/Glen Rose Networking Group, comprised of private citizens who meet twice a month and brainstorm about projects that could help the area, came up with the idea for the signage.
Harper irritated some members of the group by referring to it as a “shadow government” that should raise money for its proposed projects rather than asking public entities to get involved.
“One person told me I should attend his club meetings to find out what the city council is doing,” Harper said. She has filed a formal complaint regarding the signage issue.
“However,the real solution is for City Council to know the laws and be scrupulous about ensuring the public is served first by only considering valid executive session topics and moving to open session when any conversation veers away from that,” Harper said.
Jimmy Gosdin, one of the founders of the networking group, decided to see how much time and money Harper's requests were costing local governmental entities. Harper says she pays for her records, but man-hours spent researching and copying cannot be reimbursed.
Gosdin filed open record requests with the county tax assessor-collector, City of Glen Rose, county and district clerk's office, Somervell County Sheriff's Department and GRISD. He provided those records to me, as well as copies of Harper's requests.
Jo Spurger, administrative assistant in the sheriff's department, responded to Gosdin that Harper filed 30 requests for information in 2008 and 15 requests in 2009.
The Texas Attorney General does not allow requesters to be charged for any hours that aren't within its guidelines for personnel fees, copy fees, media fees, or compilation. “Few hours spent fall within their guidelines,” Spurger noted.
She also wrote that any request for information generally requires at least one hour of personnel time, plus whatever supplies such as copy paper are used. The guidelines in the AG's Administrative Code only allow an agency to charge for copies for a request that exceeds 50 pages.
“Many requests that require a brief to the attorney general are in-depth requests that can use 20+ man-hours to research, write the brief and make copies for the attorney general,” Spurger wrote Gosdin. “These are all generally hours for which the department has no recourse for reimbursement.”
If an attorney's opinion is needed, Somervell County Attorney Ron Hankins' office is contacted. Those also hours cannot charged back to anyone under Administrative Code guidelines.
Candace Garrett, county and district clerk, responded to Gosdin that she had 28 e-mail requests from Harper and one handwritten/typed request since June 2008.
City Secretary Peggy Busch wrote Gosdin that Harper's recent requests took about three hours and cost about $54.
Back to the Austin lawsuit. A taxpayer in 2007 sued the Eanes Independent School District there, saying its practice of responding to “voluminous open records requests” was an illegal expenditure of public funds.
According to the AP story, Ratliff claimed that a small group of residents made nearly 1,000 requests totaling about 100,000 pages of records. He further claimed that the cost of complying with the requests was more than $500,000.
The Texas Legislature eventually amended the Public Information Act so that governments can bill for requests that take more than 36 man-hours in a 12-month period. The only exemptions were “recognized” media outlets.
So are serial requesters such as Harper looking out for the public interest or clogging up resources of already hamstrung local government entities? The law is on Harper's side. I, for one, am glad to see her set up with her video camera in the corner at public meetings. I've used her Web site to look at video and minutes and records she's posted.
But how much is enough? And how much is too much? You be the judge…and let your elected officials know what you think because the law was designed to protect the people. These are your records, not theirs.