Depositions Expose Public Information Flaws
An assistant city manager who doesn’t like to write,
a public information manager who is inexperienced
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday November 9, 2015 3:44pm
“The City of Austin is committed to an open and transparent government. I believe this is an integral part of maintaining a vital and robust democracy.” — City Manager Marc Ott
Ott published this oft-repeated pledge in an April 8, 2015, memo titled “City of Austin Open Data Initiative 2.0.”
Yet, the City has failed to consistently live up to that commitment. By actual performance the City has demonstrated that it receives and routes public information requests to departments or offices thought to have the applicable records but fails to follow up and ensure compliance with the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) Government Code Chapter 552.
A prime example of the City’s spotty performance was evidenced in the outcome of the lawsuit Brian Rodgers v. City of Austin. As reported November 2, 2015, by The Austin Bulldog, the City agreed to pay Rodgers $5,000 to settle the case and thereby avoid a motion for sanctions or a full-blown trial over its gross mishandling of his public information requests and its inept response to the lawsuit.
Rodgers, who spent about twice the amount he’s getting back in settling the lawsuit, considers the expense to be a good investment in his education as a civic activist. As the plaintiff he sat in on the two depositions taken in this case and observed firsthand how the public officials answered.
“I finally get to understand how the process works—I no longer have to wonder,” Rodgers told The Austin Bulldog. “It's a lack of power by public information manager, a lack of cooperation by city staff, and no one responsible to comply with the law. So it’s set up to gum up the work of activists. Justice delayed is justice denied.
“If they intentionally wanted to thwart people from getting to the root of things before the City Council decides, this will do it,” Rodgers said. “It's easily gamed.”
Although Ott’s commitment to open government, cited above, was made within the context of expanding an existing initiative to publish more of the valuable data the City collects on the City’s website—and in the process possibly reduce the number of public information requests—the City cannot achieve openness, transparency, and accountability if the public’s right to know, which is enshrined in the TPIA, is thwarted.
Two sworn depositions taken by Rodgers’ attorney, Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, as part of the discovery process in the lawsuit provide significant insights about the shortcomings in the City’s public information system.
(Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in three lawsuits, two of which were TPIA actions against the City of Austin (see links to related stories below.)
Deposition of assistant city manager