Agencies Suppressing Online Records the Law Doesn’t Deem Confidential
Billionaire Michael Dell does it. Actress Sandra Bullock does it. U.S. Senator John Cornyn does it. And so do a large number of high-wealth individuals, trust funds, and ordinary homeowners. Even Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears does it.r
These individuals—plus some two-dozen business organizations—have taken advantage of a standing offer available to any Travis County property owner to have their appraisal records removed from the Travis Central Appraisal District’s online searchable appraisal roll. Actually, the standing offer, posted in the agency’s Frequently Asked Questions, offers only to remove the names of property owners. But in actual practice the entire record is removed.
While Texas Law provides confidentiality of the home addresses for specified individuals, none of these suppressed records fit the criteria. These public records are being hidden, without legal justification, from a public online database. (This paragraph added at 4pm November 18.)
Nearly 1,400 records of properties located in Travis County have been purged from the website for owners who do not qualify for confidentiality. While the numbers of records being suppressed now make up only a tiny fraction of the records maintained by the agency, the numbers would no doubt be far higher if more property owners were aware of this option.
Were enough people to opt for the same privilege, it would seriously undermine the usefulness of the appraisal district’s website.
The searchable records on appraisal district websites are critical resources for property owners to use in finding comparable properties when protesting the valuations set by appraisal districts. The work of fee appraisers, mortgage companies, real estate companies, and tax agents is also impeded when public records are suppressed.
Dan Birchman, owner and senior appraiser for BAS/Austin Appraiser, said he has been doing appraisals in Austin since 1983. The company provides a variety of appraisal services in seven Central Texas counties.
“Everyone doing appraisals has learned pretty much to use Travis Central Appraisal District or other appraisal district websites to confirm the owner, legal description and address, and determine which lot it is. I do that online. I use it as a preliminary source of data to start the research,” Birchman said.
“I happen to value privacy from a personal standpoint,” he said, “but we would prefer to have easier and more accurate access to information.”
Dell Inc. Chairman and CEO Michael Dell, who clocks in as the 18th richest American on the Forbes 400 list, and wife Susan Dell have 18 properties valued at a total of $29.5 million that do not appear on the TCAD website.
6D Ranch Ltd., a Dell-controlled entity, owns another eight properties valued at a total of $81.5 million, that are not listed on the searchable appraisal roll.
Actress Bullock has starred in dozens of movies including the popular Speed and Miss Congeniality series, The Proposal, and the locally shot Hope Floats. She won a Best-Actress Oscar in 2010 for her performance in The Blind Side. Bullock owns a $1.67 million home located on Spyglass Drive, near the Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail.
Senator Cornyn, when not attending to the demanding duties of a high official in the nation’s capital, and here enjoying a respite in our own state capital, can stay in a cozy condominium that he owns in the upscale Austonian high-rise at Second and Congress. You won’t find that property listed on the TCAD website.
There is no provision in law for confidentiality of appraisal records based on holding elective office. The appraisal records for most every other public official checked in this project, except for Spears, were available online.
Longtime Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Spears, who also happens to be a member of the Board of Directors of the Travis Central Appraisal District, owns a house on Amaranth Lane in northeast Austin that is not listed on the publicly accessible website.
In fact, the appraisal records for 34 commercial properties have been purged from the website, including apartments, industrial property, offices, and retail properties. Eleven of those properties are owned by businesses, three are held by trustees, the rest are owned by individuals.
Dozens of doctors, lawyers, and investors, as well as many hundreds of other property owners, also have their appraisal records suppressed on the TCAD website.
The Austin Bulldog obtained a spreadsheet listing all appraisal records suppressed by TCAD through an open records request. To access a spreadsheet listing these suppressed properties:
Sorted by owner’s names, click here.
Sorted by property type, click here.
Sorted by market value, click here.
In a phone interview yesterday, TCAD Chief Appraiser Patrick Brown said the policy of suppressing appraisal records was established by his predecessor, Art Cory. Brown, who started as chief appraiser January 1, 2008, and who will be leaving the job in mid-January, said he has not been intimately involved in carrying out the policy of suppressing appraisal records on the TCAD website. He said he has talked to only one property owner who wanted to have this done.
“My only interaction with this in last four years was a gentlemen who came in and asked that his property be withheld from the Internet. I wasn’t aware of our policy. … He said he had served a prison term and he was concerned. That’s been my only interaction. I did not suppress his records.”
Brown said he has not talked with any tax agents or other property owners who wanted to withhold records from the website. The suppression process is normally initiated when property owners submit a request that goes to the agency’s records management officer. An e-mail link and mailing address are provided in the website’s Frequently Asked Questions (See: “How do I remove my name from the TCAD website?)
What happens if TCAD receives hundreds, or even thousands, more requests to suppress records on the website? “I think ultimately in the big scheme of almost 400,000 parcels, we would have to look into it,” Brown said.
Asked why website records are being suppressed for commercial properties and for other properties owned by businesses, Brown said, “I cannot answer that. In my opinion that doesn’t make any sense. It would be my recommendation to the board that we not do that.”
Brown agreed it would be helpful for TCAD to post a disclaimer on the TCAD website’s searchable appraisal roll to state the reasons that the records listed there are not complete.
Brown noted that some rural appraisal districts do not have websites and added, “I would remind you that that a public information request for the appraisal roll, or access to the records of the appraisal district, is still available. To my knowledge, we are not in violation of the Public Information Act but there is a question of what one can expect to get on our website.
“We want to be transparent and provide as much information as we can, so we need to look at our policy on publishing information on our website, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.”
As a result of the interview, Brown said he will post an agenda item for Monday’s TCAD Board of Director’s meeting to discuss whether the policy of suppressing records on the website needs to be changed.
Travis Central Appraisal District is not the only agency to offer the little-known service of suppressing appraisal records on their websites. Appraisal districts in Harris and Bexar counties also accommodate property owners who ask that their appraisal records be withheld from public access through the websites.
Both Travis and Bexar counties prevent online access to the entire appraisal records for property owners who request it but permit complete records to be viewed on public-access computers in their offices. These districts also will supply complete records in response to requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act.
Mary Kieke, deputy chief appraiser of the Bexar Appraisal District, said her district has 1,248 suppressed accounts that are do not qualify for confidentiality. The agency maintains 640,000 appraisal records, she said.
Harris County Appraisal District allows anyone who requests it to have their name removed from the searchable HCAD online database but not the entire record. In responding to requests for suppression, HCAD removes the property owner’s name and substitutes the term “Current Owner.” The owner’s name remains accessible in HCAD’s offices and would be provided in response to open records requests.
More than 10,700 property owners’ names have been substituted with “Current Owner” on HCAD’s website, according to an e-mail from Kelly Sherbert, public information coordinator. The agency maintains about 1.5 million appraisal records, according to an appraisal roll recap report she provided.
The methods of voluntarily suppressing public records practiced by Travis, Bexar and Harris Central Appraisal Districts offer a sharp contrast to procedures followed by appraisal districts in Bastrop, Dallas, Hays, and Williamson Counties.
These districts allow full and complete online public access to all records unless a property owner is legally qualified to have records kept confidential. The records of other property owners are not suppressed.
Chief Appraiser Mark Boehnke of the Bastrop Central Appraisal District said, “If property owners don’t fill out that form or meet the qualifications (for confidentiality) it’s not done.”
Cheryl Jordan, spokesperson for the Dallas Central Appraisal District, said her agency does not remove records from the agency’s website for ordinary property owners.
David Valle, chief appraiser for the Hays Central Appraisal District, said, “We only pull off (the website) those who request confidentiality” and who apply using the form provided for those who qualify.
Chief Appraiser Alvin Lankford of the Williamson Central Appraisal District said, “We’ve had those requests happen but we’ve not done one.”
Appraisal records are public records that qualify for full and complete disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act unless a property owner meets the lawful requirement for confidentiality.
The significant differences in how information contained in appraisal records is displayed on the websites of appraisal districts interviewed for this report illustrates the ongoing tension between public information and personal privacy.
A spokesman for Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said the comptroller’s office provides guidance to appraisal districts but does not have enforcement authority. With the exception of the mandatory confidentiality provision, each appraisal district decides what to publish on its website—and what not to publish.
In the absence of specific legislation, appraisal districts have been left to determine how to balance these rights.
Bill Aleshire of Riggs, Aleshire and Ray PC, is an attorney who volunteers to provide advice to journalists through the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He is also The Austin Bulldog’s attorney in two public information lawsuits currently pending against the City of Austin.
“The ownership of property has never been included in the package of constitutional or common-law privacy rights recognized by our courts,” Aleshire says. “The choice by appraisal districts to conceal appraisal records on their websites that they cannot conceal in response to an open records request is of uncertain legality.
“To my knowledge,” Aleshire said, “that issue has not been tested in court. But, at a minimum, this practice of concealing certain records on the website that are otherwise public information is unwise and very misleading to the public, who has no warning when they use these websites that the information is deliberately incomplete.
“This practice also increases the cost of making public information available, requiring staff time to process an open records request for information that otherwise would be easily available through the websites.”
Tax Code Section 25.025 provides for confidentiality of appraisal records for individuals in 10 listed categories. These include peace officers, jailers, employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, commissioned security officers, victims of family violence, judges and their spouses, employees of prosecutors of criminal law or child protective services, employees of a community supervision and corrections department, criminal investigators, and police officers or inspectors of the U.S. Federal Protective Service.
Anyone qualifying under this statute who requests confidentiality will be approved by their appraisal district and will have their entire records removed from the appraisal district’s website. These records will not be supplied in response to an open records request under the Texas Public Information Act.
Texas laws do not require appraisal districts to maintain publicly accessible websites, a spokesman for the Texas Comptroller said.
The Legislature has not enacted laws to authorize removal of any other records from appraisal district websites, nor has the practice been prohibited.
Still, the suppression of public records runs counter to existing state policies that favor disclosure in the absence of specific exceptions enumerated in law.
The Texas Public Information Act, Government Code Chapter 552, establishes a preference for openness and sets the tone for how government agencies should think about handling the records they possess.
Section 552.001(a) of the Act states:
“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.”
Further, Section 552.272(d) states:
“If information is created or kept in an electronic form, a governmental body is encouraged to explore options to separate out confidential information and to make public information available to the public through electronic access through a computer network or other means.”
Government Code Section 2054.001(b)—which applies to Texas state agencies, not central appraisal districts, cities or counties—states:
“It is the policy of this state to coordinate and direct the use of information resources technologies by state agencies and to provide as soon as possible the most cost-effective and useful retrieval and exchange of information within and among the various agencies and branches of state government to the residents of this state and their elected representatives….”
State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) wrote Senate Bill 701 that was passed in the 2011 session of the Texas Legislature. Although it applies only to state agencies, it specifically addresses the posting of high-value data sets on the Internet by adding Section 2054.1265 to the Government Code. It defines a high-value data set as:
“Information that can be used to increase state agency accountability and responsiveness, improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations, further the core mission of the agency, create economic opportunity, or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation. The term does not include information that is confidential or protected from disclosure under state or federal law.”
The Travis Central Appraisal District’s Board of Directors will address its Internet posting policy, including redacting of information, at its meeting Monday evening. The Austin Bulldog will cover that board meeting and will address other problems with accessibility of information on the TCAD website in the next report.
This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.