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.