Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Dec. 9, 2014
KELLER, Texas — Keller school district officials are suing the Texas Attorney General over an open records request related to last month’s bond election.
Aaron Harris, who led the political action committee opposing the $169.5 million bond approved by voters, submitted a request for a copy of the individual responses to a survey the district funded to gauge public opinion on a possible bond package, along with any identifying information on respondents.
Baselice and Associates, an Austin-based public opinion research firm specializing in political and public affairs issues, surveyed 453 respondents in July. The objectives were to look at general attitudes about the Keller school district, assess support and opposition to a potential bond and measure the persuasiveness of informative statements about a bond proposal. The district paid $23,050 for the survey.
District officials gave Harris the survey summary and the invoice showing what they paid for the service but said they could not give names and how each individual answered because they did not have that information.
“We wrote a letter to the Attorney General saying the information wasn’t public, and the company was adamant about not releasing the information. We couldn’t even get a representative sample,” said Amanda Bigbee, general counsel for the Keller school district.
Michael Baselice, founder and CEO of Baselice and Associates, said that in 2,500 survey research projects conducted by his firm, he had never had anyone else press to get individual response data.
“We don’t share information on individuals,we aggregate it,” Baselice said. “We would be breaking a trust and a bond we created with the respondents if we were to give up their individual information.”
At the beginning of every survey, the script states that individual responses are kept confidential.
The day before the election, the Attorney General’s office responded to say that because the district paid for the survey with public funds and it pertained to official district business, all the information, including names of participants and how they responded, should be available to the public.
Harris responded to questions via email, saying that the Attorney General agrees with him that all the information should be available to the public.
“Whether or not the district claims to possess the information is irrelevant. Once again, the burden is on the government to comply with the law requiring transparency and open government,” Harris said.
Harris also questioned why KISD officials did not sue Baselice and Associates for not releasing the information rather than suing the Attorney General.
Bigbee said officials considered suing Baselice and Associates, but after she consulted the Attorney General’s office, she learned that the only way to protect the district from being subject to possible “criminal enforcement” actions was to sue to have the decision overturned.
“We sought every option other than this. Suing the Attorney General is not something we wanted to do,” she said. “We’ll try to do it as efficiently as possible and save as much taxpayer dollars as possible.”
The suit must be filed in Travis County. At the Nov. 13 board meeting, trustees approved filing the suit with the assistance of the law firm Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green & Trevino. Bigbee estimated the cost of the suit at $10,000 to $20,000.
Harris said he objected to the bond survey for a couple of reasons. First, district officials did not have a written contract with Baselice and Associates prior to the survey, and second, the explicit purpose of the bond was to “measure the persuasiveness” of certain informative statements.
“Using information with intent to influence the outcome of an election is a violation of state law,” he said.
Bigbee said district officials made arrangements for the survey over the phone based on previous bond survey work Baselice and Associates had performed for the Keller district and for Superintendent Randy Reid in other districts.
She said that because the survey was conducted months before Keller trustees called the bond election and because all the information given was factual and not advocating for or against the bond, the survey did not violate state law.