Mckinney Courier-gazette > News
McKinney tops requests to AG, Plano follows in attempts to withhold government information
An article published this month by the Center for Public Integrity about transparency in Texas said McKinney had the highest number of requests sent to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in hopes of withholding government information.
Other Dallas suburbs ranked in the top six after McKinney for refuting open records requests were Plano, Mesquite, Garland and Arlington.
The city of McKinney asked for 411 rulings to deny public information requests in 2011, or 324 per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the state. Most of these were associated with police records or general city business, city spokeswoman Anna Clark told the center.
In McKinney, residents are encouraged to fill out an open records request form, which is forwarded to the appropriate department for handling, Clark said. The city secretary's office processes the requests for regular city business, as its employees have extensive training determining which records are available to the public, she said.
"If they are unsure, or if the records requested likely contain information that is not available to the public [like social security numbers, etc.], they send the request and the documents to the city attorney's office to review, who can send any documents for ruling to the Attorney General's office," she said.
The police department works a bit differently since its records contain different types of information, Clark said. The current process involves sending a majority of the requests and documents to the city attorney's office to be sent on to the AG for ruling, she said.
Public records cases submitted to the attorney general typically entail police matters such as car accidents, shootings, abuse and other related topics, according to the Public Integrity article. Examples of materials requested can include contracts, police reports, videotapes and emails.
Government records were intended to become more accessible to the public thanks to the Texas Public Information Act, formerly known as the Open Records Act. Any information collected, assembled or maintained by or for a governmental body is subject to this act, according to the Attorney General website.
However, according to a 50-state report released in March by the State Integrity Investigation -- a partnership of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International -- Texas ranked 29th in public access to information and was one of the many states to receive an "F" in that category.
"While Texas' open records law is fairly strong as written, the way it's put into practice leaves gaps and sometimes keeps public information secret," the article stated.
Officials who seek a ruling from the attorney general must ask for one within 10 days of the original information request and must explain why such information should be kept confidential.
Pending litigation, personnel information or computer security issues are common reasons used to justify confidentiality, according to the article. A governmental body is also forbidden from inquiring about the purpose for which the records will be used.
But many government officials wait 10 business days to hand over documents, even if they aren't seeking an attorney general ruling, according to the article.
In McKinney, Clark said the city is currently reviewing the police department's open records request process and is working with the city attorney's office to determine if changes can be made in the current process to make it more efficient.
"The aim of the city is to be transparent," Clark said. "When the information in the article was made available to us, particularly the practices set forth by other cities, it gives us an opportunity to examine our own practices and look for ways we might be able to implement change."
Plano was fifth in its number of requests, submitting 457 in 2011, or 169 per 100,000 residents. When asked about the city of Plano's requests to the attorney general last year, Director of Public Information Dana Conklin declined to comment, stating she was in the process of scheduling a private meeting to discuss the open records process with members of the media and city officials.
Plano resident Jack Lagos has been filing open records requests with the city of Plano since 2004 and said the trail to acquiring government records can be daunting if the requestor doesn't know how the process works.
"Depending on whom you're seeking information from and the subject matter, both of these might determine how much resistance you're going to get," Lagos said.
A requestor also has little recourse if a request is denied, as their only means consist of filing a lawsuit in state court. Three years ago, the city filed an injunction against Lagos preventing him from being within 500 feet of city council members. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court ruling in August, said Lagos, who is back at meetings and continuing his constant search for information.
Lagos said about 10 percent of his requests get sent to Abbott's office, while a larger percentage are returned with what Lagos called "push back."
In a request made by Lagos last month for advertising expenditures from the Plano Economic Development Board from 2008 to 2009, Plano City Secretary Diane Zucco responded the 10th day after Lagos' request. Zucco stated in the email that the information he was seeking was located in a warehouse and would cost $345 in "labor and overhead."
"What they're doing is stringing this thing out. They push back by saying they're getting the Attorney General's opinion," Lagos said."And the reason for [that] is we don't want you to have it. What they do is wear you out. They set such a high roadblock that you just give up."