"The Public Information Act . . . has no real sanctions, just public embarrassment, if you can be embarrassed. That's the sad part about it. The strongest aspect of the PIA is that it gives the public access to behind-the-scenes activity by public officials . . . "
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Pct. 2 Commissioner Barton
(D-Mountain City, Buda, Kyle)
Compiled by Bob Ochoa
This just in: The Hays Community Action Network (HaysCAN) and its president Charles O'Dell have filed a formal complaint against Precinct 2 County Commissioner Jeff Barton, claiming that Barton is violating the Public Information Act.
Friday, July 31 – Mr. O'Dell, in a letter dated today, has now made an open records request directly to the office of Special Council, Mr. Kennedy (and staff), for "all forms of correspondence conveyed to or received from Commissioners Barton and Conley regarding our 2/29/08 PIR referenced above. Time period is 2/29/08 through the date of this Public Information Request."
Thursday, July 30 – Commissioner Barton returned our call for a comment this afternoon. See his comments below.
Wednesday, July 29 – We put in a call to Commissioner Barton's office this morning for a comment from the commissioner. So far no call back. Fyi, his office number is 512.262.2091 in case any of you alert citizens & taxpayers out there care to give him a shout. Here's his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
"I don't answer open records requests. That happens through the legal counsel's office. We want somebody who is nonprejudicial. We want a reasonably objective party answering open records requests, somebody who really knows and understands the law.
"I don't know exactly what Dr. O'Dell got (from the original open records request) because I didn't prepare it or give it to him. What I presume he got was every phone call I made on county business . . . I asked to be reimbursed for phone calls I made (from) my cell for county business and my understanding is he received all those phone calls.
" . . . It's my choice what a personal or county business call is. Hays County is only paying for those calls that are clearly expressly county business calls . . .
"It was the special counsel's office (that handled O'Dell's public information request) and to the best of my recollection I was not involved at all. I mean they told me about it in a sort of passing conversation."
Asked if he is still requesting reimbursement from county taxpayers for use of his cell phone to conduct official county business, Barton said, "No, I am not."
We failed to ask the commissioner when he decided to quit asking for reimbursements, and who in the county instructed him on the proper procedure for certifying the reimbursements.
Here are special counsel Mr. Kennedy's comments. He said he was in receipt of HaysCAN's complaint. His e-mail address is email@example.com
"Normally the AG's office receives the complaint and tries to sort through the details with my office. In this case, Charles appears to have sent the complaint to me and copied the AG's (Attorney General's) office. I have called the AG's office and have not gotten a call back yet . . . I only contacted them and left a message saying I'm calling regarding this complaint and left my number.
"I'm not going to comment on it, on the substance of the complaint, until I've ascertained how to proceed by working with the AG's office on this.
"There are numerous nuances to the way the act (Texas Public Information Act) operates. (The "Act" is part of the Texas Government Code, Chapter 552). I can say that we do our very very best, earnestly do our very best, to meet every letter of the act and make sure the information gets out to the requesters.
" . . . Under the act we are not allowed to ask what the requester wants the information for. Oftentimes we just process it and make sure it doesn't have nondisclosable information.
" . . . I think normally the AG would issue a finding (and contact the complainant) at least by phone call . . . the AG is a check and balance for every county, every local government in the state in terms of public information and how that information is processed . . . that is why we get them involved . . . if it's a request, there's a timeframe; the AG's office is going to drive it."
HaysCAN and O'Dell (firstname.lastname@example.org) have asked for Barton's cell phone records for a six month period, from December of '06 to June of '07, Barton's first six months in office. Included is a short period before Barton's official swearing in, for which O'Dell says Barton requested reimbursement from the county.
Here's what Mr. O'Dell had to say: "The point I want to get across is that I expect public officials to obey the law, all the laws, not just the ones they want to. Barton's efforts to side step (HaysCAN's original public information request) actually provided evidence that what he refused to give us was in fact in the public domain. We continue to ask for those records and expect to receive them.
" . . . He (Barton) gave us one page out of a 41-page phone bill in which it had 29 of his wife's phone calls of the 108 that she made. I was looking to see who he's talking to. He obviously has some calls to and from folks he doesn't want us to know about. What is it about his official phone calls using his cell phone that he doesn't want the public to know about?
"The reason I asked for these first six months of his term is because this is what he had come back with showing he (was) reimbursed for the use of his cell phone and he admits it was for use of official county business and therefore the county government has a right to them and we have a right to them, the public, because taxpayer money was used to pay for a portion of the bill . . .
"HaysCAN is a nonprofit tax exempt organization founded in July 2003. We have wide support in Central Texas. We are members (one of 45 members) of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, an organization headquartered in San Antonio. Our source of funding has been grants, fund raisers and donations from the public. We have been asked for our membership list, the City of Drippings Springs tried it, Barton has tried it. We maintain our constitutional right of not disclosing for fear of retaliation against our supporters.
"The Public Information Act . . . has no real sanctions, just public embarrassment, if you can be embarrassed. That's the sad part about it. The strongest aspect of the PIA is that it gives the public access to behind-the-scenes activity by public officials. To the extent they are unwilling to break the law, they will just give us the information."