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State laws and local statutes require public officials to file a variety of records about themselves. The Texas Public Information Act makes these records public. But many are not published and are provided only in response to a public information request.
In keeping with the Bulldog‘s nonprofit mission of serving the public interest, we established the Government Accountability Project (GAP) to provide ready access to these records, free to anyone with an internet connection. When it comes to accountability, we’re filling the gap.
Access to the records published in the Government Accountability Project will always be free in exchange for your email address. We will never share your email address but will use it to send News Alerts and to notify you when new records have been added to this resource.
GAP records are searchable by the name of the public official. Pick your target and see what we’ve got.
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We have filed more than 130 public information requests with local government agencies to obtain records pertaining to elected officeholders, appointed officials, and top agency employees.
After obtaining the records, all of which are so far are in PDFs, we used optical character recognition software to ensure that they were made searchable. That means after you open the file you can search key words to quickly find the details you’re looking for. You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view PDFs. It’s free. You can download it here.
The specific kinds of records vary from agency to agency, as each has its own regulations and may be governed by different statutes. Broadly speaking, the GAP publishes records that will help you:
• Find out if the officials of governing bodies have timely completed the mandatory training required by the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act and thus are informed about how to comply with these laws designed to ensure open government. We aim to hold them accountable, as we did when the Austin City Council broke these laws. Although the Acts require officials to complete this training within 90 days of taking office we found numerous instances in which training had not been taken until after we filed a public information request.
• Identify a public official’s substantial interest in a natural person, entity or property, or the official’s relationship with a vendor on a government contract, that would be affected by the official’s vote or discretionary decision,
• Monitor the public official’s conduct,
• Detect when a public official may have a conflict of interest that has not been publicly disclosed as required, and
• Provide evidence for enforcing accountability by exposing unreported conflicts of interest and filing complaints with appropriate authorities.
Affidavits of abstention from voting disclose when a local public official has a substantial interest in a business or in real property and action on the matter would have a special economic effect on the business or real property. If so the official is required to file, before a vote or decision on any matter involving the business or property, an affidavit stating the nature and extent of the interest, and must abstain from a discussion, vote or decision.
Certificates showing that the official has timely participated in mandatory Open Meetings Training course required by the Texas Open Meetings Act. The purpose of the training is to inform officials of the responsibilities of the governmental body and its members under the Act. Such training is required to be completed not later than the 90th day after the member takes the oath of office or otherwise assumes duties as a member of the governmental body.
Conflict of interest disclosures that officials must file with respect to a vendor that enters a contract with a local government and has an relationship with a local government officer or a member of the officer’s family.
Duality and conflict of interest procedure published by Central Health to assist its Board of Managers and employees in understanding and complying with ethics policies.
Ethics, conflicts and nondisclosure policy published by the Austin Transit Partnership with procedures and controls for ethical performance of its mission and detection and prevention of conflicts of interest and fraud against and within the organization.
Irrevocable pay waivers filed annually by Austin City Council members who voluntarily chose to reduce their own pay so they could use that money for other municipal purposes of operating their offices.
Performance evaluations of top agency administrators are not always made public. For example, evaluations of the Austin City Manager and Travis Central Appraisal District’s Chief Appraiser are delivered verbally in closed-door executive sessions. Public information requests for those evaluations have been met with replies of “no responsive information.” Central Health's CEO, however, gets written evaluations that go into great detail and are published in the GAP. Performance evaluations for the Austin ISD superintendent are put in writing but are by law deemed confidential. The Austin Transit Partnership is currently working out procedures for evaluating its executive director’s performance.
Personal financial disclosures list sources of income for the official and the official’s spouse, business interests, boards and executive positions, debts, investments, and real estate interests. It should be noted that:
• Despite the enormous responsibility and powers exercised by governing bodies to approve budgets, award contracts, hire and fire senior executives, and be good stewards of public resources, some local government agencies—most notably the elected trustees of Austin Independent School District and the appointed board members of Travis Central Appraisal District—do not require the members of their governing boards to file personal financial disclosures. This presents a significant obstacle for monitoring their conduct.
• In the absence of personal financial disclosures, the public must rely upon the personal morals and honest behavior of AISD and TCAD officials to self-report and disclose when they have conflicts of interest and to abstain from a discussion, vote or decision.
• The local government agencies that do demand personal financial disclosures may require them to be filed on different forms, at different times, under different circumstances, or require different information.
• To improve transparency and public accountability, the City of Austin’s Ethics Review Commission July 27, 2022, voted to recommend that all financial disclosures filed with the City Clerk by the mayor, council members, and candidates for those offices be published on the City’s website. As reported by the Bulldog March 21, 2023, the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee heard some of the commissioners present the idea but showed no interest in pursuing the recommendation. Which is why the Bulldog obtains these financial disclosures and publishes them in the GAP.
Personnel files for key executives include dates hired; authorized pay and benefits; perquisites such as allowances for cars and cell phones; promotions; provisions for severance pay, and résumés that provide insight into the executive’s education and previous job experience. If we learn that an elected official has worked for a local government agency, we file a public information request, get those personnel files, and publish them in the GAP, as we did for City Council Members Ryan Alter and Jose Velasquez, as well as Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion.
Sponsored trips or excursions offered by a person or entity other than the City of Austin and accepted by members of the Austin City Council are to be reported per Austin City Code Section 2-7-72(F), to include the name of the sponsor, place(s) to be visited, purpose of the trip or excursion, and within 15 days of return the approximate value of the trip or excursion.
Statements of financial interests and affiliations required by the Austin Transit Partnership.
Travis Central Appraisal District Policies adopted by its board of directors. The policy addresses the board itself; district administration; appraisal review board; conflicts of interest and ethics; duties, responsibilities, and job description of the chief appraiser; taxpayer liaison officer; procedures for conducting board meetings; and a form for filing an affidavit on abstention from voting.
In getting this massive project underway, our initial focus has been to obtain and publish documents that are not otherwise available online. Once these voluminous records have been obtained and published, we may consider adding other types of documents that are already available online but are scattered across multiple government agency websites.
We recognize too the ongoing work that will be required to update the records as needed. This will require careful scheduling to file new public information requests to get, prepare, and upload documents. We will endeavor to do our best.
We welcome your feedback about the Government Accountability Project. We invite suggestions for other local government records that readers would like to see added.
Send your feedback and suggestions to [email protected].