City blackout

This came in from Max Grossman:

Dear Friends and Media:
Yesterday evening Aaron Montes of the El Paso Times alerted the public on his Facebook newsfeed that the City Attorney’s Office, which claims to be operating with a “skeleton crew,” has ceased to process open records requests! I just couldn’t believe it, so I visited the City’s Public Information Center webpage; and when I tried to file my own open records request, sure enough, this notification appeared in bold red type:
In light of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), as of March 16, 2020, the City Attorney’s Office will be operating with a skeleton crew. Under the Texas Public Information Act, skeleton crew days are not considered business days when calculating deadlines under the Act. Any public information requests submitted during this time will be deemed received once the City Attorney’s Office resumes normal scheduling. The City Attorney’s Office is currently scheduled for skeleton crew days through April 17, 2020. Notice of changes to this date will be posted on this website, and notification will be sent on any open requests.
Mr. Montes, whose job it is to report on City issues for the El Paso Times, notes: “In plain language: open records requests won’t begin to be processed until the attorney’s office says they are on normal operating hours. So, until that happens, if you request public documents or public information from the city, you may not see it until that happens.”
It is hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the Texas Public Information Act, which states under Texas Government Code § 552.221(a): “An officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication, or both on application by any person to the officer. In this subsection, “promptly” means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.” Apparently the City is loosely interpreting the definition of “promptly.”
According to page 238 of the City of El Paso FY 2020 Budget Book, the Office of the City Attorney will cost the taxpayers $4,400,030 this fiscal year, including $2,557,363 for salaries and wages and $750,793 for employee benefits. On page 242 we learn that there are 42 staff in that office, including 16 individuals who hold the title “Assistant City Attorney” and 7 paralegals. In 2019, City Attorney Attorney Karla Nieman earned $253,750, just a hair less than a US Supreme Court Justice.
In spite of all this legal muscle and taxpayer expenditure, major litigation is outsourced to outside firms, including in San Antonio and Dallas, at an average cost of at least $1 million per year.
And evidently our City attorneys and their staff have made open records requests a low priority at time when government has assumed sweeping powers and transparency has never been more critical. Our media and the general public must have access to City records, even under these circumstances, and someone in that “skeleton crew” should be processing all ORRs promptly.
El Pasoans deserve better.

6 Responses to City blackout

  1. Tired taxpayer says:

    Skeleton Crew Days are indeed not business days. BUT the process can only be suspended for 14 CALENDAR DAYS…which is not mentioned in the notice.


  2. Tired taxpayer says:

    Max’s comments about the cost and benefit of the City’s legal office are absolutely on target. Council should inquire as to why the second-highest-paid member of City staff has to outsource such a huge portion of the workload, outsourcing beyond El Paso at that!


  3. JamesW Peterson says:

    Exactly, how many staff members from the legal department are not showing up at City Hall? _______ What is the normal staffing level? ________ Are there any members from the legal department “working” from home? __________ What other ongoing duties of the legal department are on hold? _________


  4. Irma Gonzalez says:

    Please refer to the Texas AG’s website.

    Please note they are not doing the suspension under 552.233, which does have a 14-day expiration. Also, even if they were, the city has the ability to extend that period if it is still impacted by the catastrophe after the expiration of the initial period.

    It should also be noted that they are utilizing skeleton crew exception in which a day is not counted whenever the office is working with the bare minimum of employees present. You are not going to find that in statute but it is recognized by the AG. Do a word search in the following PDF provided by the Texas AG and you will see that it is a valid reason.

    Click to access publicinfo_hb.pdf

    Now, do they meet that? More likely than not they do because I’m sure the vast majority of employees are working from home. Additionally, the step they took is probably redundant as I would not be surprised that the physical office is closed, thus allowing them to meet one of the other exceptions for days noted in the AG’s website.

    The long and short of this is to say that they are not violating the TPIA and you need to focus on actual wrong doings. Does it suck? Well, yes. But this darn COVID-19 has caused all sorts of problems. Do you keep an eye on this? Yes to that, too, but you don’t need to tar them with the “lazy government bastards draining our resources” brush just yet. I know it is your go to response, but let’s chill for a bit.


  5. Anonymous says:

    “ The secret in business is knowing something nobody else knows. The rule is there is no rules. Be either rich or an enemy of the rich.” Aristotle Onassis


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