Attorney General closes case against Victoria City Council

Melissa Crowe
Victoria Advocate
Originally published September 14, 2013

The attorney general’s office is closing its open records investigation against the city of Victoria.

Four months ago, a public information complaint was filed against the city of Victoria and one former and three current City Council members for records that have yet to be released

In a letter dated Sept. 10, Assistant Texas Attorney General Neal Falgoust said the state would close the case against the city of Victoria.

The enforcement authority of the attorney general’s office does not include on-site inspections of records held by another governmental office, according to Falgoust’s letter.

“The city informs us in the enclosed correspondence that it has made available to you all information responsive to your request,” Falgoust wrote.

In May, the Advocate requested phone records, text messages, emails and other forms of correspondence from council members Emett Alvarez, David Hagan and Josephine Soliz and former councilman Joe Truman.

Alvarez did not provide phone records or text messages, Hagan and Soliz did not voluntarily provide any information, and Truman did not provide phone records.

Hagan said, “I just don’t have any comment at the present time.”

The Texas Public Information Act explicitly lists elected officials’ email correspondence – whether from a city-owned or personal email account – as public information so long as it relates to the public’s business. However, the law does not have the teeth to coerce elected officials to make the records available.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the law, as written, is strong compared with other states, but in practice, it does not stack up.

“What we have found is it so much depends on who is carrying it out and who is fulfilling the request,” Shannon said. “You may get a governmental body that is very cooperative and hands over records as required by law. You may find a governmental body that is not as cooperative.”

According to a 2012 study by the Center for Public Integrity, Texas received an “F” in public access to information.

Mayor Paul Polasek said he was frustrated and disappointed with the attorney general’s letter.

“It was apparent to me during the meeting that a walking quorum existed,” Polasek said, meaning he thought the four council members had decided their actions beforehand.

He also pointed out that while some involved in the records request spoke about transparency, they “chose to not supply records, and I am disappointed in that.”

“Ultimately, the citizens can decide if they want to be represented by these people or not,” Polasek said. “Let the voters make their own determination and judge the behavior of these council members.”

Polasek said he wants the council to move on with the business of the city, and he would not pursue a district attorney investigation.

“If the public thought they wanted the local district attorney to pursue that issue, they should communicate that to him,” Polasek said. “I’m disappointed and frustrated, but we need to move on.”