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Tuesday, August 18, 2015 by Sunny Sone
Public information requests rely on the honor system at City Hall
The city of Austin handles public information requests on the honor system – without oversight to ensure those who are inquiring receive all the information they request.
An investigation into how the honor system works found that public information requests to City Council offices and departments under the city manager are handled differently and that there is no standard training for Council offices.
Currently, when a public information request is entered into the city’s system, the Public Information Request Team sends the request to a designated point of contact in each respective office, according to the law department. The point of contact processes the department’s search and uploads responses back into the tracking system, without oversight.
As backup, Communications and Technology Management perform searches for emails in Council members’ offices, though the point of contact is still responsible for finding and uploading all relevant documents. However, CTM does not search emails for departments under the city manager. Only the point of contact processes those requests.
In exploring the process for public information requests, the Austin Monitor also learned that Council offices receive different amounts of training.
The city’s Law Department explained that each point of contact initially receives a general overview of the process and training on the log system. After that training, standard training “has been made available” for all points of contact by a designated trainer. Members of the Public Information Request Team also work with points of contact one-on-one, but there is no indication of training beyond the orientation.
Council Member Greg Casar said he was concerned that he was not receiving all responsive information during his time as an advocate at the Workers Defense Fund. During construction of the JW Marriot, Casar asked for several documents to prove construction workers were not being paid what they should – while the Marriot received fee waivers for working with and fully paying women- or minority-owned businesses.
“There were times where it was hard to know whether we were just not asking the right questions, and that’s why we weren’t getting those documents, or whether the documents didn’t exist,” Casar said. “And in the end it came to light that there was never any proof that they were paying the workers a certain amount.”
Casar said he was less concerned with the city intentionally holding back documents and more troubled that the response team appeared not to be doing adequate digging.
“We were like, how is this everything that you have? And maybe, in the end, they were telling the truth and it was an honest oversight, but that was the end of the line,” Casar said.
Kelley Shannon, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it is incumbent on the city to supply all relevant information to requesters. Not doing so would be in violation of the Texas Public Information Act. She said compliance with the law is always a matter of the ethics of those involved.
“They need to realize what the law is and comply with the law and find all records that are responsive,” Shannon said. “If it’s known that certain records exist and a certain person says they can’t find them, that governmental entity has a duty to find them.”
Shannon also said that most people who work in government want to uphold the law, and it is possible that the person taking a request may not know how to find the requested information. However, it is still illegal not to provide all responsive documents from the city.
“The Texas Public Information Act was written in part to allow the public access to government in order to increase trust,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “We have a duty to the public to produce accurate and complete information when requested. This is something I take very seriously, and I’m always willing to engage in a conversation about how to best serve the people.”
Statewide, there appears to be some room for interpretation in terms of how the public information act is implemented.
Houston’s public information requests are processed almost exactly the same. In San Antonio, however, office liaisons will monitor responsive documents if the amount of information requested is large enough, San Antonio Public Information Officer Moraima Montenegro said.
The Texas Public Information Act states that people have a right to information from the government. It requires public information coordinators or liaisons to receive a minimum of a single one-hour training session.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
Communications and Public Information: This city department provides information to the media, engages with stakeholders in the community, and promotes city projects and initiatives.