Texas Bill Would Allow Online Meetings…

Members of the Legislature and other governmental bodies could communicate in an online forum and not break the law under proposed legislation filed Thursday that would expand the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“Government should function efficiently and effectively, and the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the author of Senate Bill 1297, said Thursday. “This bill uses technology to ensure that officials at every level of government can communicate when they need to.”

Currently, the Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of local and state government boards from discussing government business unless it is in an open meeting that has been announced to the public. However, the act, which was first adopted in 1967 and revised in 1973, offers no guidance as to what is permissible in an online setting.

SB 1297 would allow for public officials to create online message boards that they could use to communicate government business. The boards would be available for the public to see.

The law would require all communication between officials to be in writing, which must be made available in real time. All postings would be required to be viewable for 30 days after posting, must be electronically archived for at least two years and are subject to Texas Public Information Act requests. No votes or official actions by the members of a board are allowed in these virtual arenas.

More here.

Texas AG’s War With Washington Costing Dearly…

A nice piece of FOI-driven reportage:

The slogan goes, “Don’t Mess With Texas.” But with President Barack Obama in the White House a more appropriate cry might be: “Try it and

texas our texas

texas our texas (Photo credit: jmtimages)

we’ll sue.”

The Texas attorney general’s office has filed 24 lawsuits against the federal government since Obama took office — litigation that has cost the state $2.58 million and more than 14,113 hours spent by staff and state lawyers working those cases.

Many of those have resulted in defeats, including the recent high-profile lawsuits defending Texas’ strict law requiring voters to show picture ID at the polls and the new state-approved voting districts that a federal appeals court ruled were discriminatory toward minorities.

Those two cases alone cost more than $2 million, according to records obtained by The Associated Press using the Freedom of Information Act.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the costs are worth it, calling the litigation “a fight against the unprecedented ideology coming from the Obama administration.” In an interview, he said the legal battles he wages are meant to promote industry and protect Texas jobs.


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Rick Perry’s presidential run: $3.7 in state overtime.

Overtime is ALWAYS an FOI home run…Texas Watchdog

Governor Rick Perry of Texas speaking at the R...

Governor Rick Perry of Texas speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Please attribute to Gage Skidmore if used elsewhere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

took a look at Gov. Perry’s tab and found some big-gubmint-style spending!

Overtime fueled the $3.7 million cost of security for Gov. Rick Perry’s run for president.

Department of Public Safety sergeant in the governor’s security detail earned $65,143.36 in overtime, more than his actual annual salary of $64,401.96, a study of all overtime earned by state employees in 2011 by the Houston Chronicle shows.

The top two and five of the top 10 overtime earners in the state are members of the DPS Executive Protective Bureau, which generated a total of $499,000 in overtime last year, the Chronicle reported.

They were among 1,988 state employees who earned at least $10,000 in overtime in 2011. In all, 56,948 employees ran up $122 million in overtime, the Chronicle analysis shows.

The state auditor’s office reported in January the state carried 310,865.4 full time positions in the first quarter of 2012, compared to 318,814.2 employee positions in the first quarter of 2011

Food stamp and Medicaid application backlogs resulted in $27.8 million in overtime for employees of the Health and Human Services Commission, the highest amount of overtime for a state agency, the newspaper reported.

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Sen. Bentsen’s FOI files reveal the creepy side of public life…

McClatchy made an FOI request for Sen. Bensten’s files, and they unveiled a tumultuous series of threats against the Texas lawmaker:

Lloyd Bentsen was a patrician yet popular politician, tall and dignified, a U.S. senator from Texas for 22 years, a presidential candidate in the 1970s and the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

It turns out he was also the target of a series of death threats and extortion plots throughout his public career.

Bentsen’s FBI file documents more than a dozen threats from the 1970s to 1991, including one in 1988 simultaneously against Bentsen, when he held the second spot on the Democratic ticket, and Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, his Republican vice presidential rival.

Among the threats was also a plot to kidnap Bentsen’s father in 1978 and apparently hold him for ransom.

Others included threats from two different Fort Worth, Texas, letter writers, as well as an inmate in a Gatesville, Texas, prison.

Bentsen died in 2006 at age 85. McClatchy was able to obtain his FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act because he is deceased.

The twin threats against Bentsen and Quayle in September 1988 came via identical anonymous letters sent to their respective Senate offices in Washington, postmarked from Illinois.

They were decorated with an abstract drawing and in block letters said: “Prediction: ‘Assassination’ in the news soon!”


The silly constitutional challenge to open meetings law in Texas may never end…

It’s a fundamental flaw in the fabric of FOI: requesters stonewalled by government agencies square off with taxpayer-funded lawyers with all the time in the world on their hands…

Signaling their intention to go to court forever to withhold information from the public, lawyers for 15 city officials begin today trying to convince the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the Texas Open Meetings Act violates their freedom of speech.

The officials from Alpine, Wichita Falls, Pflugerville, Sugar Land, Arlington, Heath, Rockport, Leon Valley, Whitesboro, Hurst and Bellmead filed suit in 2009 contending they conduct public business in terror of violating the law.

In March of 2011, U.S. District Judge Robert Junell took 37 pages to call their contention nonsense. Junell said the Open Meetings Act was not vague, or too broad, or suppressive of free speech.

Oh, but why let a ringing judicial smackdown make you hold your meetings in public, when you can waste some more tax dollars dragging this out?

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Mugshot Publications: A Tough FOI Issue

This one is a bit difficult for me, until I place the situation into abstract First Amendment doctrine: these sites are acquiring public records, legally, of photos made, then publishing them. Yes, there are ample grounds here to debate the ethics of such publications, and the take-down fees are another matter altogether. But trying to parse broad restrictions on acquiring public records for “commercial use” takes us down a road no capitalist, information-rich economy wants to tread.

The story’s opening:

Mug shot magazines such as Mugly! and Busted! and their online equivalents have become popular in recent years. Some people just can’t resist visiting web sites or paying a buck at a local gas station for a thin tabloid full of pictures — some comical, others weird or just plain creepy — of people who’ve been arrested. Sometimes the photos depict people who were not convicted. Innocent people get caught up in the mix.

The magazine owners defend their product, saying they serve as a deterrent for future criminals, encourage Crime Stoppers tips, promote arrests, and put a face on area crime statistics. Mug shots are public record, they say, pointing to their First Amendment rights to publish the information. Besides, a caveat is included in the fine print: All suspects are innocent until proven guilty….



FOI AT Work: Texas TV Station Obtains Police Chase Video

KLTV 7 has obtained dramatic dash-cam video of Smith County authorities chasing a man in a stolen Tyler police car.

After making numerous requests though the Freedom of Information Act, we were able to obtain the thirty-minute video of that May pursuit.

The chase started on Highway 155 in Noonday after 24-year-old Isaac Garcia attempted to rob two women before allegedly stealing a Tyler police car.

“We’ve impacted again,” said a Smith County deputy involved in the chase.

That was the moment where the chase began to heat-up. Police say Garcia was behind the wheel of the stolen patrol car.

“Oh, he is still west bound,” said the deputy. “He survived it.”

That was the second time police tried to get the car to pull over. About two minutes earlier, the video shows Garcia slamming into the median, barely escaping authorities.

With flashing red and blue lights on, Garcia was reportedly waving police to go around him.

Keeping Austin Weird…

Rainbow cup

Image by Näystin via Flickr

From a great NYT profile on Austin-based anarchist (can an anarchist really have a base?) Scott Crow…

Blogged here by Reason:

Mr. Crow, a lanky Texas native who works at a recycling center, is one of several Austin activists who asked the F.B.I. for their files, citing the Freedom of Information Act. The 440 heavily-redacted pages he received, many bearing the rubric “Domestic Terrorism,” provide a revealing window on the efforts of the bureau, backed by other federal, state and local police agencies, to keep an eye on people it deems dangerous.

In the case of Mr. Crow, who has been arrested a dozen times during demonstrations but has never been convicted of anything more serious than trespassing, the bureau wielded an impressive array of tools, the documents show.

It’s interesting reading…weird, even.

Speaking of weird, a poster on one of their blogs in a free-for-all blasting a column I wrote some years ago managed to attack me by means of a false racial assault. It was plenty racist, but directed at a white me.

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Oh, Good. Secret Police! Just What We Need. Banana Republic, Anyone?

A police officer in Chicago posing on a Segway...

Image via Wikipedia

From Texas, quite possibly the worst FOI exemption of the year!

The Texas Senate approved legislation Tuesday banning the release of police officers’ photos in most cases, a bill open government advocates opposed.

House Bill 2006, by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, next heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

It specifies that an officer’s photo can be released by a police department if the officer has been charged with a crime, if the photo is evidence in a court case and in a few other instances.

The Houston Police Department pushed hard for the bill, saying releasing officers’ photos to the public would endanger undercover officers or those targeted by gangs. Under current law they can keep police officers’ photos out of public view, but an officer must sign an affidavit. Police officials said that can be an administrative nightmare.

And if a police officer is involved in a newsworthy incident, but has not yet been charged? Secret. The police officers who, hypothetically, enter the wrong home on a search arrant and tear the place up, then leave? Secret. The officer whose intervention in a dramatic search-and-rescue effort saved the day? I am guessing…not so secret.

This is utterly ridiculous. Sure, there are rare cases in which an officer’s name, in an undercover situation, needs protection. But in 99% of police interventions, there is not a thing in the world that is the least bit private about who the taxpayer-funded, public figure toting the gun and the badge is.

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Federal Judge: Texas Open Meetings Act Does Not Violate First Amendment Rights of Officials!

I am completely digging transparency as a “compelling government interest”!

A federal judge upheld the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act on Friday in a long-running case originally filed by members of the Alpine City Council. Council members from 11 cities later joined the case, including Mel LeBlanc of Arlington.

U.S. District Judge Robert Junell, based in West Texas, wrote that the law doesn’t muzzle the First Amendment right to free speech, as plaintiffs asserted, but instead protects “the compelling interest of governmental transparency.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the named defendant, praised the ruling as a victory for democracy and the First Amendment.

In a Star-Telegram opinion column in December, LeBlanc explained why he joined the suit. The open meetings act, he wrote, “is a vague and confusing law, made more so by opinions handed down by attorneys general and appellate court rulings throughout its 43-year history. Confusion creates a milieu of silence and non-action, hesitation that stems from fear of reprisal, including jail time and fines, or of simply making a mistake.”

Read more: http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/03/25/2950984/federal-judge-upholds-texas-open.html#ixzz1Hie5TluN


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