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Attorney General rules against LCRA over release of public information

Friday, July 1, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A battle over public information between the Lower Colorado River Authority and the City of West Lake Hills continues to heat up.


In a letter dated June 28, the Texas Attorney General’s office informed the LCRA that it had determined that the agency had not conformed to the Texas Public Information Act. The ruling came in the form of a letter from Assistant Attorney General June Harden to LCRA attorney Vic Ramirez.


The letter echoes a June 17 ruling from the Travis County Attorney’s office. There, County Attorney James Collins suggested that his office could file “a civil enforcement action” against the LCRA.


The letter further compels the organization to release most of the information associated with a secretive bidding process that will produce a buyer for its many municipal water utilities.


The LCRA maintains that it did no wrong. “LCRA is following the processes as set out in the Public Information Act and is not hiding documents,” wrote LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma in an email.


The rulings come as part of a dispute between the LCRA and the City of West Lake Hills. At issue is an open records request submitted by city authorities in the hopes of collecting information about the ongoing sale of a host of municipal water utilities currently owned by the LCRA.


“We have given the city everything it requested pursuant to its complaint on previous requests,” Tuma wrote. “The county attorney on June 17 allowed LCRA four days to produce any documents responsive to an earlier request and a complaint. At that time, LCRA had already handed over the requested documents. After receiving the county attorney’s letter, LCRA handed over additional documents that were over and above what was requested.”


Harden’s letter recounts the history of the dispute. It cites three separate requests from West Lake Hills that date back to February. It adds that the LCRA did not seek an opinion from the Attorney General’s office until the last of these was received.


“We find that in not seeking a ruling in response to the February 16 request or March 21 request, the LCRA failed to comply with the requirements mandated,” Harden wrote. She then concluded that this failure “results in the legal presumption that the information is public and must be released unless a compelling reason exists to withhold the information from disclosure.”


However, Harden further ruled that, in failing to comply with a requirement to seek an attorney general’s opinion within 10 days of receiving a public information request, the LCRA waived its right to withhold information. “Thus, we find that in failing to comply … the LCRA waived its claimed exemptions for all responsive documents created prior to March 21, 2011.”


Harden ruled that the organization could withhold only the names of the current bidders for the utilities. The LCRA must also release the balance of documents created after March 21.


We’re looking at the opinion and we’re gathering information from our financial advisor that will be responsive to the attorney general’s opinion,” wrote Tuma, who said that the ruling relates to an April request. “We are considering all options available to us under the act.”


It is believed that most of the bidders involved in the process are privately held groups. West Lake Hills is part of a consortium of public entities that has expressed interest in the water utilities. Officials from the city are concerned that water rates could double or triple if a private firm wins the bidding war.


The LCRA decided to divest itself of the utilities in November, citing excessive operating costs.

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