EDITORIAL: Accountability missing from City leadership

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On Jan. 2, The Independent e-mailed seven different information requests under the Freedom of Information Act to the City of Liberty Hill.

A response to those requests was due within 10 business days (Jan. 16). On Jan. 21, the first response arrived, including a handful of items that either did not provide a complete answer to the requests, or did not answer them at all.

As was the case with requests made to the City in September 2019, the current effort to make the public’s information public when requested may be considered minimal at best, and intentionally nonexistent at worst.

Where is the accountability for the community’s information? Isn’t it agreed by everyone – from the elected City Council to the residents in the city limits – that information held by City leaders is information that belongs to the people they serve?

Following a back and forth over legal specifics and cost estimates in September, The Independent met with Mayor Rick Hall who attempted to explain the confusion and a few points on why the City had not simply sent the requested information.

Hall said the requests would be answered, and that we should work on better communication and transparency going forward.

Fast forward to the current requests and here we are again with little responsiveness. The Independent contacted Hall by email Jan. 17 to let him know that we had not received a response to the requests and the deadline had passed. He did not respond.

Are communication and transparency important?

This information belongs to the public. It is not the information held by City leaders to dole out as they see fit, deciding which information and when it should be shared with requesters.

Did The Independent request something that shouldn’t be public?

A copy of the final approved City budget for the current fiscal year? What was provided was a copy of the original proposed budget from July, which had been provided at the budget presentation nearly two months before the final document was approved. The missing final budget is also missing (as of press time Wednesday) from the City’s website, a place where cities are legally required to publish their budget.

A request was also made for correspondence between Council members and staff regarding the budget process and discussions about the spending plan. This was to include memorandums, letters, emails, text messages or any other form of communication where the budget was the discussion.

The response from the City included copies of three City meeting agendas and copies of the minutes from a pair of meetings.

Is this supposed to demonstrate the extent of budget talks as the budget was formulated over more than two months?

Why is this information important?

It is important because there was never public discussion of the budget that projected considerably more revenues and lined out more expenditures than previous years. It added many new positions and included new compensation for the City Council.

How do these major expenses make their way into an official budget without some form of discussion?

It is possible a portion of the information requested by the newspaper might be considered cumbersome or time-consuming to gather. In such a case, the City has the right to charge a fee for such work and to explain any necessary delays in making the information available. To date, no such explanation has been provided.

Of the seven requests, only one response satisfied the specific request — a copy of the Employee Handbook. Three of the requests were not responded to at all by press time Wednesday, and three others were incomplete or not pertinent to the original request.

This is now a legal issue, and the next step for The Independent is to contact the Texas Attorney General’s Office to determine the next step in obtaining this information.

As has been cited numerous times in a variety of requests for information, Section 552 of Texas Government Code is very clear on the issue of public information.

“Sec. 552.001. POLICY; CONSTRUCTION. (a) Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.”

There is a prescribed way to request such information. There are a few narrowly defined exceptions to what information is public. There is a well-defined period of time a governmental body has to respond to the request, and an appeals procedure the government must follow if it seeks to withhold the information from the public.

The legal response period for the City of Liberty Hill to the Jan. 2 requests was 10 business days. It was 12 business days later before any information was provided.

In September, the City managed to take the entire 10 days to respond, choosing to respond with questions of clarification rather than providing any of the requested data.

Even with the 10 days, the code reminds officials that prompt response is the spirit of the law.

“An officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication, or both on application by any person to the officer. In this subsection, ‘promptly’ means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.”

A city can’t claim any level of transparency and accessibility when the only version of information available is the limited version an elected official chooses to talk about.

These are not secret documents. The disclosure of them does no harm to anyone. But the choice to not disclose them, or make obtaining them difficult, does a great disservice to the community and should raise questions about why such information is being guarded or not easy to pull together for a curious public.

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