Public information roadblocks launch KCBD Investigation

Updated: Oct. 8, 2020 at 6:41 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - Earlier this month, the KCBD Investigates team delved into the mayor’s failure to disclose his wife’s interest in a local business.

In that story, our team detailed the trips to City Hall and the open records requests we made before the City of Lubbock fully disclosed details about the mayor’s vote, which he openly admits he should not have cast.

Through the course of that investigation, our team requested information contained in the Mayor’s Personal Financial Statement.

The City Secretary gave us a copy of the financial report our team asked for, but 90% of the document was blacked out or redacted, including the information we were looking for.

So, we made a second official request. This time, asking for the same document in a slightly different way delivered better results.

After asking for a “legally redacted” copy, we were given the same document, with fewer redactions and blackouts.

So, we took a closer look at that process in hopes of answering the questions: Is the city properly obeying the First Amendment? Are they as transparent as they claim to be?

We filed this request in order to find out about the mayor’s vote in a property he had a personal investment in. However, we were told the level of redactions made were out of “courtesy to the council.” So, our team went back and asked for a “lawful redaction,” which we received on July 15.

Our story aired on Sept. 10, but why did it take two trips to City Hall and two open records requests to finally get the information we requested? Information that the public deserves to know.

We sat down with City Secretary Becky Garza to get some insight into how her office handles requests like this.

In the off-camera interview, she first cited a change in Texas law that allowed her office to withhold public information about the sitting mayor, a statute she provided to us during our meeting.

Our team reviewed Senate Bill 489 and found it does relate to “personal information that may be omitted” from certain records, but we could not find any changes allowing officials to omit information for mayors, spouses of mayors, or even the City Council.

It does, however, address federal and state judges, Directors of Emergency Preparedness, municipal judges, county attorneys and spouses of those officials.

We took the documents to an expert to make sure we weren’t missing something.

Lubbock attorney Gary McLaren, who has practiced law for 26 years, specializes in matters pertaining to open records requests. He gave us his professional opinion whether or not this law could be used to withhold the mayor’s financial information as Garza claimed.

He provided KCBD with this statement:

“Senate Bill 489 from the 2019 Legislative Session does not apply to redacting the personal financial statement of a municipal officer, such as mayor. That Bill, and its amendments to various statutes, primarily governs redacting information pertaining to federal and state judges and their spouses, and other judicial officers. The statute governing redactions to the personal financial statements of municipal officers is Chapter 145 of the Texas Local Government Code. That statute deems the personal financial statements of municipal officers to be public records, and allows limited redactions pertaining only to the office of municipal judge, candidates for the municipal judge position, and their spouses."

Ultimately, Garza told us the information originally omitted from our request was an error by one of her employees. She spoke with us about the priorities of her office, saying their goal is to serve the citizens.

We also contacted City Attorney Chad Weaver. He said, "SB 489 was relevant to the analysis to the extent that it provided some clarification as to what information is open under the Texas Open Records Act. As you know, I am not able to discuss any legal advice that may have been provided. It is my understanding that Becky stated the redactions in the documents were made in error and that unredacted documents were ultimately provided.”

An error City Secretary Garza ultimately corrected when she released a third copy of the same document, this time, with no omissions at all.

During our sit-down with Garza, we asked what changes would be made going forward within her office. She told us that her office would be “more careful” and that her staff would receive “more training.”

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