Call me old-school or old-fashioned. Maybe I’m just old and reluctant to try new things.
So when a City of Houston employee told me on Monday how I could expedite receipt of public information I had requested – by logging on to an online system the city recently started using to process open records requests – I was skeptical. I had already formally submitted the request in an email and was worried that re-submitting it on a website might restart the city’s clock. Government agencies in Texas are required by law to furnish the requested information within 10 business days or respond with an explanation for why they think it should be withheld.
Journalists have deadlines and time is of the essence, but the employee told me I’d get what I wanted more quickly if I played along. The city wanted to be paid its processing fees before handing over the documents I wanted, and using the new system would allow our company to pay in an instant.
The alternative was driving downtown, meeting the employee in person and handing him a check. With a pandemic ongoing and a hurricane approaching, no thanks.
So I reluctantly went to the website, created an account, made the duplicate request and told our accounting department how to pay the man his money. It turned out to be easier and simpler than I expected to use the GovQA program, which cost the city $286,000 to implement, according to a spokesperson for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Three days later, though, my use of the city’s new system had yielded only one noticeable result: The city received money from The Leader, a media company that provides free news to the public, more quickly than it would have otherwise. As of press time Thursday, I still hadn’t received the records I requested, which are related to sidewalk improvement projects in the area as well as stormwater drainage infrastructure in a local neighborhood.
The request was made specifically with Houston Public Works. Late last month, I also submitted open records requests to the Houston Police Department and Houston Municipal Court to get information related to the dangers of driving on West 43rd Street.
That’s three different departments under the city’s umbrella and, as I’ve discovered, they have three different ways of processing requests for publicly available information. Apparently, they also have three different philosophies about how much their information is worth.
The courts charged $67 for a list of speeding tickets issued on one street, and public works asked for a total of $180 to supply the aforementioned information I haven’t yet received. The police department hasn’t yet submitted an invoice and hasn’t yet provided the traffic accident reports I requested on July 29 – so much for that 10-business day window I mentioned – but past experience leads me to believe the bill will be much lower by comparison.
I was told by the courts and public works that the relatively hefty price tags for their information was related to employee hours to process my requests. Turner said in a Monday news release that new system will “reduce the amount of time our employees devote to processing paperwork,” so we’ll see if that drives down the cost of future requests. The mayor’s spokesperson, Mary Benton, said in an email that there will no longer be charges for paper copies or DVDs since “all records will be released through the portal.”
So maybe this expensive GovQA system will end up being beneficial to journalists like me and to the public in general, which has the same right to public information as members of the working press. The portal certainly streamlines the process, because requests to any department within the city can be made in one place.
On the website, www.houstontx.gov/publicinformation, requesters can direct their queries to six different municipal departments: administrative and regulatory affairs, the mayor’s office, public works, the police department, the legal department and the airport system. A wide range of documents are available, including arrest records, building permits, contracts involving the city and even information about animal bites from BARC.
“The City of Houston handles over 2,000 public requests annually, and public information officers work diligently to clarify each request and identify and eliminate redundancies,” Benton said in a news release announcing the Monday launch of the new system. “GovQA makes the (Texas Public Information Act) process more efficient, which benefits the public that we serve.”
Time will tell if that holds true. The system undoubtedly makes it easier to pay the city to process public information requests, although I can’t yet say if the information will be delivered any more promptly or if it will be any more accurate or complete.
But I encourage all our readers to try the system out for themselves and request whatever information they might want, if for no other reason than to hold their municipal government accountable. And since we’re still in a pandemic and often hunkered down at home, why not make an open records request just to pass the time?
It’s an important exercise in our democracy, especially at a time when elected officials and government employees often have minimal direct contact with the citizens they serve. Politicians can make statements on social media and hold news conferences with minimal attendance on account of social distancing, leaving citizens and even reporters on the sidelines instead of actively engaging with them.
With that said, I’ve found most city employees and local elected officials to be accessible and open to answering questions in a timely fashion. On Tuesday, for example, when the city was devoting most of its time and energy toward preparing for an approaching storm, Benton answered my questions about the GovQA system within a matter of hours.
As for that records request I made, which we paid for through the new online system, the services have yet to be rendered. So the system isn’t perfect, at least not yet.