City of Austin cost estimate for records related to its Right of Way decisions
Updated Tuesday June 20, 2017, 12:14pm
to add theCity’s first response to the attorney general
Well this case probably would not qualify for the Golden Padlock Award bestowed annually by Investigative Reporters and Editors. The award is designed to dishonor the most secretive publicly funded agency or person in the United States.
But on a local level in the Austin area—if anyone were keeping track—this might rank among the highest cost estimates furnished by a government agency for providing records in response to a single public information request.
The request was filed with the City of Austin by Wayne Dolcefino of Houston-based Dolcefino Consulting. Recently he survived a head-on highway wreck that might easily have been fatal. Now he’s trying to make the best of a collision between the public’s right to know and a government agency’s unyielding response.
Dolcefino is no stranger to public information fights. He is a former investigative reporter and winner of 30 Emmy Awards for his work in television and numerous other awards, according to his website. Back in the 1970s he worked at KLBJ Radio here in Austin. More recently, in Houston at KTRK-TV he headed the station’s 13 Undercover Unit at for 27 years.
Dolcefino filed a public information request six months ago and is still waiting for the information. He asked for records that he needed to investigate the “staggering right of way fees for developers trying to build new apartment complexes and office buildings,” which he says ultimately result in charging higher rents to cover the costs.
He asked for copies of three kinds of records: (1) the personnel files of 11 named employees, (2) emails sent or received after January 1, 2016, by these employees, and (3) other electronic communications covering the same period for these individuals.
A whopper of a cost estimate
After back-and-forth correspondence with the City, in which he declined to clarify his information request, on January 19, 2017, the City sent him a cost estimate of $132,996.50, calculated as follows:
Personnel time: 5,861 hours @ $15 per $87,915.00
Overhead charge: @ 20 percent $17,583.00
Total pages 274,985 @ 10 cents $27,498.50
Given that a person’s work-year is 2,080 hours, the number of hours estimated to fulfill his request is the equivalent of 2.8 work-years. A case of paper contains 5,000 pages, so the page count in this estimate would require 55 cases.
Oh, and by the way, the City wanted a down payment of more than $66,000 before they would start work on the job.
Dolcefino didn’t buy that.
Cost estimate good for a laugh
“We are entitled to a delineation of the estimate for each specific request, before I respond,” he wrote in a January 19 email. In an attempt at levity, he added, “I did get a good laugh, thanks.”
Have you filed a public information and received an unreasonably high estimate of the cost you must pay to get the records? If so, please tell us about it by sending a message through our “Blow the Whistle” page.
The City provided a breakdown of the estimated cost February 2. In response he paid a total of $510.60 to obtain records in the possession of the City’s Public Works and Human Resources Departments that were responsive to two parts of his request.
That left an estimate of $132,485.90 for records held by the Austin Transportation Department, which oversees the Right of Way Management Division.
“I’ve never dealt with a such a difficult, game-playing agency as the City’s Right of Way department,” Dolcefino said in a Thursday telephone interview.
Because litigation might be needed, Dolcefino warned the City to hang onto the requested records and all communications with the City concerning his request. Then on February 9, as permitted by Texas Public Information Act Section 552.2615, he filed a complaint about the cost estimate with the Texas Attorney General.
In response the Attorney General’s Office sent letters to the City on March 27 and May 26, each time giving 10 days to respond. Each letter contained detailed questions to be answered about how the cost estimate was calculated.
Dolcefino was provided copies of the Attorney General’s letters to the City but has not been furnished with copies of the City’s responses to those letters, he said.
Dolcefino said the Attorney General’s Office has been dealing with his complaint for four months. “They send each other letters. It’s a ridiculous process. It should’ve been handled in a phone call to figure it out.”
Have you filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office about a cost estimate? If so, please tell us about it by sending a message through our “Blow the Whistle” page.
Sky-high cost viewed as obstruction
“At Dolcefino Consulting we are used to government officials spending time and money to keep taxpayers from seeing their records, but the folks at the Guinness Book of World Records may want to keep track of this emerging public records outrage,” he wrote in a blog posted June 1 under the headline, “The City of Austin Must Be Hiding Something Good.”
“Austin is hurting itself with its system of secrecy,” he told The Austin Bulldog. “It should have been real clear that someone’s looking at this (right of way) issue.”
“It has reached the point where these people don’t give a crap about taxpayers seeing their records,” Dolcefino said. “Austin is a cool vibrant city but in public information they are worse than the smallest country county I’ve ever dealt with. They’ve been impossible to deal with. Stunning to me they would make that request (cost estimate) and not call and help get it down. That’s why I’m calling them out.
“The cost of public information shouldn’t be news because it’s public and should be available to any member of the public,” he said.
Austin Attorney Bill Aleshire, after being made aware of Dolcefino’s situation, said, “Lots of agencies with bad attitudes about transparency—including the fake liberal City of Austin—use overcharging on costs as a last-ditch tactic to conceal public information they cannot legally withhold from disclosure.
“Agencies who use efficient means of storing and retrieving public records and actually respect the Public’s right to such records don’t respond the way the City of Austin has to Dolcefino’s request,” Aleshire said.
Dolcefino told The Austin Bulldog, “If the City of Austin wants to end up in court spending taxpayer money (to defend its response to his public information request) maybe that’s the way we end up going.”
City of Austin’s First Response dated April 13, 2017 (3 pages)
Related Bulldog coverage: The City of Austin has been sued numerous times for failing to timely provide records related to public information requests, twice by The Austin Bulldog and once by Brian Rodgers. Bill Aleshire represented the plaintiffs in all three cases.
The Austin Bulldog Files Lawsuit to Compel Compliance with the Law, >March 2, 2011 (Cause No. D-1-GN-11-000639)
The Austin Bulldog Files Second Lawsuit Against City of Austin for Withholding Records, September 1, 2011 (Cause No. D-1-GN-00-002713)
City Sued Over Public Records, June 12, 2015 (Cause No. D-1-GN-15-002291)