Featured, from left: Juan Guerra, Edinburg City Manager; Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortéz; Omar Ochoa, Edinburg City Attorney; and Carla M. Rodríguez, Edinburg Assistant City Manager, in the City Council Chamber at Edinburg City Hall following a news conference on Friday, April 5, 2019.
Photograph By ANA ÁVILA
After the Edinburg City Council recently approved purchasing software to make it easier for any person to request public information, City Attorney Omar Ochoa declared that “transparency in government should be a hallmark of the City of Edinburg.”
On Thursday, May 23, 2019, the city council, which includes the mayor, unanimously approved investing $17,850 to purchase computer software and related maintenance services to manage the city government’s public information requests.
Public information requests involve a process which gives anyone the right to ask for many types of information from local, county, regional and state governments, as well as from public community colleges and universities.
“Edinburg’s elected city leadership has had a long commitment to going above and beyond the basic legal requirements. For example, our city government doesn’t just post the agendas for its meetings, it also makes available to the public the agenda packets, which has all the background information,” Ochoa said. “In the late 1990s, the Edinburg Cable Network was created in part to let the citizens of Edinburg see for themselves, without any editing taking place, everything said and done by the mayor and city council during public meetings. Many of the biggest state agencies in Texas were not doing that backthen.”
Ochoa also pointed out that the city government makes video recordings of previous city council meetings available online.
“The video archives are very important. It’s not a requirement under state law, but the city council does it anyway,” said Ochoa. “Our elected leaders are proud of what has been done to be transparent, to be open to the public. This latest step that they are taking to centralize and automate our public information requests is in that direction.”
“Edinburg’s city government gets a large volume of public information requests for a variety of different items. Right now, there is a mostly manual process – folks will send in an email to the City Secretary’s Office with their specific request,” Ochoa explained. “But this (GovQA contract) will allow us to automate the process, and provide a better platform for citizens seeking public information.”
In 2017 approximately 532 requests were processed, 832 in 2018 and approximately 300 through the end of May 2019, according to Ludvina Leal, the City Secretary.
“A Public Information Online Software would provide maximization of work efforts by staff as well as providing a transparent and user friendly approach to the residents of the City of Edinburg,” Leal stated in her summary to the mayor and city council members, which is part of the city council’s May 23, 2019 agenda packet.
Under Leal’s leadership, the City Secretary’s Office currently manages the public information procedures, with staff members reviewing the requests, gathering the documents, coordinating with the City Attorney’s Office for legal guidance, then providing the response, Ochoa said.
Public information requests are are taken seriously throughout the nation, including in the Lone Star State. Public information requests are authorized and detailed by theTexas Public Information Act, originally known as the Texas Open Records Act, approved by the Legislature in 1973 in a reform atmosphere following the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal involving state officials. Spelled out inChapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, the act states that “government is the servant and not the master of the people.”
The Sharpstown scandal was a stock fraud scandal in the state of Texas in 1971 and 1972 involving the highest levels of the state government. The name came from the involvement of the Sharpstown area of Houston.
“It is important to the public. The city governmentoperates off taxpayer funds, and with that comes a lot of responsibility,” Ochoa agreed. “The citizens have the right to make sure their government is using their taxpayer money wisely. The ability to request documents, to review what’s going on, is very important for transparency and democracy.”
In general, openness, accountability, and honesty define government transparency. In a free society, transparency is government’s obligation to share information with citizens. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.
Asking for information through the GovQA system “will be open to the public,” Ochoa said. “Anyone who wants to send in an information request to the city government can do it from anywhere that has an Internet connection. One of the goals will be to build some kind of an archive, not only so folks can make their own request, but they can see what requests have been submitted in the past, and have access to the same information.”
In her cover letter for her company’s bid, Jennifer Snyder, Chief Sales Officer, GovQA, promised that their software and maintenance services are designed to meet the highest standards of government transparency.
“Public sector organizations are increasingly driven to comply with the Freedom of Information Act/Public Records Act, provide access to public information, improve request response times, collaborate across departments, and integrate processes while reducing costs,” Snyder stated. “GovQA’s modern, state-of-the-art, software as a service (SaaS) platform improves access to public information while increasing efficiencies within the organization.”
Highlights of GovQA’s contract with the city include the following products:
- Completely configurable “off the shelf” SaaS platform tailored to fit the city’s processes;
- Intuitive public-facing portal increases requesters’ self-serve adoption;
- Proactive tools to reduce requests backlog and staff workload;
- One-stop platform with numerous built-in modules;
- Compliant with all state and federal laws; and
- Custom training and exceptional customer support.
The agreement with GovQA represents the first time the City of Edinburg sought a professional service contact to manage the city government’s public information requests. Currently the city government manages all requests through an internal tracking response.
The Public Information Online Software “would provide maximization of work efforts by staff as well as providing a transparent and user friendly approach to the residents of the City of Edinburg,” Leal stated.
An evaluation committee was formed consisting of four city staff members who encompassed various departments from within the city which process requests, Ochoa noted. Those members were Ludy Leal, City Secretary; Danny Vera, IT Director; Erica Balli, HR Manager; and Tom Reyna, then-Director of Public Works and now Assistant City Manager.
“Soon after becoming City Attorney, I began working with City Secretary Leal to improve the process, so the city government could ensure compliance with state law, and that it’s always open and transparent,” Ochoa recalled. “It was just kind of a thought process. What can we do to improve, are other cities doing something better, is there a more effective way to process these public information requests? Through that, we came up with the idea of securing an outside vendor to automate the process and create a better platform for public information requests.”
As of the May 23, 2019 city council action, the public information request improvement represents the most recent of many advancements in transparency in city government.
“The next step is to move forward with the vendor to get this system set up. We have tested it, it is proven, and it’s ready to go,” Ochoa projected. “We want to publicize this to make sure the public knows that it has this tool. Ideally, this will happen in the next few months. This is an important project for Edinburg, and we definitely want help to spread the word once it’s up and running.”
Meanwhile, city leaders maintain Edinburg’s very popular Facebook presence, which keeps residents and visitors always informed and instantly up-to-date on dozens of activities and breaking news taking place in the community, he said.
Edinburg city leaders past and present always have looked for ways to support open government.
Ochoa’s father, former longtime Mayor Joe Ochoa, and his administration created the Edinburg Cable Network.
“I know Dad would say it wasn’t just him, it was a great team of people who came up with that idea and pushed it forward,” Omar Ochoa said of the landmark decision to create the city’s cable television channel, which now has a worldwide audience through the city’s website. “But he definitely showed a lot of leadership on that issue, and it continues to be beneficial to this day.”
As part of creating the Edinburg Cable Network, the city pooled resources with the University of Texas Pan American (now UT Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg), moving their Edinburg City Council and Edinburg Economic Development Corporation board of directors public meetings to the International Trade and Technology Building, which was more spacious than the then-Edinburg City Hall, which was located 212 W. McIntyre Street.
Journalist Sandra Quintanilla Guzmán, at the time a reporter and anchor with KRGV TV Channel 5, was brought on board by the University of Texas-Pan American as the first leader for the Edinburg Cable Network. In the succeeding years, three other former broadcast journalists have followed Guzmán as the top executive for the Edinburg Cable Network: Evelyn Castellano Escamilla, the Hidalgo County Bureau Chief/Reporter at KRGV-TV before she came to the Edinburg Cable Network; Irma Garza, a news anchor with KGBT-TV and the McAllen Cable Network before she came to the Edinburg Cable Network; and Cary Zayas, a news anchor with KRGV-TV before she came to the Edinburg Cable Network.
Former longtime Mayor Richard García and current Mayor Richard Molina and their respective administrations also have championed transparency in government, always coming up with ways to improve the city’s public information, website, Facebook and broadcasting services.
As the years went by, the Mayor Richard García administration made its own contributions to transparency in government by developing the websites for the city and its jobs-creation arm, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.
One of the more significant advances took place when former city manager Ramiro Garza, Jr., with the blessings of Mayor García and Edinburg City Council at the time, began to post the entire agenda packet on the city’s website. As a result, everything from resolutions honoring our great citizens, to the most detailed contracts for individuals and firms doing business with the city government, for all to see on the city’s website.
For his part, Mayor Molina and his administration have upgraded the broadcasts of the city council meetings, not only by presenting them live and by keeping the video recordings on the city’s website, but also by allowing viewers to select the agenda items of most interest, and be able to access those portions of the broadcasts quickly and easily.
In addition, the Edinburg EDC recently completed an upgrade on its website by providing the full video recordings of the Edinburg EDC Board of Directors’ meetings.
And as of the May 23, 2019 Edinburg City Council action, the public information request improvement represents the most recent advancement in transparency in city government.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FOUNDATION OF TEXAS
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas strives to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public and protects the liberties of free speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment.
They assist individual citizens, journalists and government officials through educational seminars, an annual conference and a speakers bureau. They also file briefs in important legal cases addressing open government and freedom of speech and press. The Foundation’s FOI Hotline connects Texans with volunteer attorneys who explain open government laws. Their Light of Day project teaches college students how to use public records in their reporting. They are a non-profit 501(c)3 organization.
According to the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, two major state laws in Texas help promote and protect the people’s right to know about the activities of their governments and its elected and appointed leaders.
Texas Public Information Act
The Texas Public Information Act applies to all governmental bodies, including all boards, commissions and committees created by the executive or legislative branch. It also may apply to a body that is supported by public funds or that spends public funds. Private organizations that hold records for governmental bodies also are covered. However, private individuals and businesses are not covered even though they supply goods or services through a government contract.
Types of Information
Public information refers to information collected, assembled, produced or maintained in the course of transacting public business. It may be on paper or film or in electronic communications such as emails, Internet postings, text messages or instant messages.
Some information is not open to the public. These types of information are listed as exceptions in the Texas Public Information Act. They include some information in personnel records, pending litigation, competitive bids, trade secrets, real estate deals and certain legal matters involving attorney-client privilege. Attorneys’ fees paid by a governmental body are generally public.
Generally, the front page of a police report is public. Records that would hinder the investigation or prosecution of a crime if they are released are exempt from disclosure.
Information collected and maintained by the judiciary is not covered by the Texas Public Information Act. That information is governed by public access rules set by the Texas Supreme Court and other applicable rules and laws.
Making a Request
Filing a request under the Texas Public Information Act is as simple as asking the government agency in writing for the desired information. The request can be made through a letter or via email or fax. It does not need to contain any particular language, but it’s important to be clear. Try to be specific. This will help produce the information that is sought and can eliminate the need later for narrowing down a request that is too broad. The governmental body is not allowed to ask why the information is being requested.
A governmental body or agency can charge for copies of the information, but the fee must be reasonable and cannot be used to discourage someone from asking for information. The requester is entitled to an itemized bill if the charge is more than $40. A governmental entity can also waive copying charges. For more information, see the Texas Cost Rules tab in the Resources section of the website for the Freedom of Information Foundation (http://foift.org). To avoid charges, the requester can ask to view the records in person on the premises of the governmental body.
Public information is supposed to be released “promptly.” There is a misconception that a governmental body or agency has 10 days to release information. The 10-day mark is the deadline for a governmental body, if it contends the information is not public, to ask for an attorney general’s decision allowing it to withhold the records. (Texas’ open records law is stronger than those in many other states in that if a governmental entity wants to withhold information, it has to ask the attorney general for permission to do so.) After a ruling is sought, the attorney general then decides within 45 days. The person making the original request can also offer written comments to the attorney general. If a governmental body fails to seek an attorney general decision in time, the information is presumed to be public.
Appealing an Open Records Decision
When the attorney general’s office agrees with a governmental body that information can be withheld from the public, the person making the original request has the option of filing a lawsuit in state district court to attempt to have the information released.
The Texas Open Meetings Act is detailed in Chapter 551 of the Government Code. It states that governmental bodies must hold open meetings unless there is an authorized reason for a closed session, also known as an executive session.
Key provisions of the act are as follow:
Governing boards, commissions, agencies and other bodies created within the executive and legislative branches of government are subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act. Commissioners courts, city councils, school boards and certain nonprofit corporations providing public services or spending taxpayer money are among the entities covered. Certain property owners’ associations also are subject to the law.
A quorum refers to a majority of members of a governing body, unless a quorum is defined differently by an applicable law or rule or charter of the body. A quorum must be present for the body to take action.
Posting of Notice
The governmental body must give the public notice of the date, time, place and subject of an upcoming meeting. The notice must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times at least 72 hours before the meeting. In case of an emergency or “urgent public necessity,” a meeting notice or addition to a meeting agenda may be posted at least two hours prior to the meeting. The governmental body must clearly identify the emergency.
Other Exceptions to Posting Law
Boards or commissions with statewide jurisdiction must have their meeting notice posted on the Internet by the secretary of state at least seven days before a meeting.Committees of the Texas Legislature are not subject to the meeting notice rules above. Their rules are set by the Texas House and Senate.
Closed, or executive, sessions may be held by a governmental body in certain situations. Executive sessions are permitted when a body is meeting with its attorney on litigation or a settlement offer; deliberating personnel matters; deliberating the purchase or lease of property; discussing certain financial contract negotiations; or discussing deployment of security devices. Several other exceptions to open meetings are also contained in the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Deliberations Between Meetings
Under a new provision of the act that took effect Sept. 1, 2013, members of a governing body are allowed to communicate with one another about public business between meetings if they do so in writing and on a publicly accessible online message board. The message board must be prominently displayed and easy for the public to find on the government entity’s website. Officials may not take action on the message board. That must wait for a posted meeting.
The Texas Open Meetings Act now allows for members of a governmental body to attend a public meeting via a video conference call. The head of the board or commission must be physically present in the designated meeting place and the public must be given access to that meeting space. The public must be able to witness the comments and actions of those officials attending the meeting remotely via audio and video equipment and be able to participate via the videoconferencing just as they would at a traditional public meeting.
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).