Fort Bend County withholds details of paramedic raises until after vote

By Jayme Fraser
Houston Chronicle
Originally published Jan. 27, 2015

Fort Bend County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved an average 22 percent increase to the wages of paramedics and EMTs after county officials refused to provide details about the proposal in the days leading up to the vote, as required by state open government laws.

On Thursday, a Chronicle reporter requested details about how much wages would be increased under the proposal, but county administrators and the staff of elected officials did not return multiple emails or calls requesting the same information even though commissioners had received two versions of the proposal and a wage survey days earlier.

“I’d be happy to do so after Court today,” human resources director Kent Edwards wrote Tuesday to a Chronicle reporter, “assuming the item is approved.”

Advocates for transparent government criticized county officials for a lack of openness in their handling of the salary increase.

“They were so flagrant as to even come back and tell the reporter that they didn’t want it out before they decided,” said Bill Aleshire, an attorney who volunteers with the Freedom of Information Foundation. “That’s real close to being a criminal violation of the act, let alone a civil violation.”

The Texas Public Information Act says all government documents are considered public records unless expressly exempted under the law, such as for some information related to contract negotiations and sensitive personal information like Social Security numbers. It also requires governments to release requested documents “promptly,” which numerous court rulings have defined as “as soon as possible under the circumstances without delay.”

No Fort Bend County official reached for comment cited a legal exemption as the reason for refusing to release the documents promptly. Most acknowledged the salaries of public employees are a basic type of public record.

’10 day rule’ cited

County Attorney Roy Cordes said he would need to review the details of the matter before commenting, but suggested the county has 10 days to respond to public records requests – even if that was after the date of a vote on the same matters.

Aleshire, who served 12 years as Travis County Judge, said the “10 day rule” is a common misconception and only applies if a government plans to deny a public records request and seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general.

Because the requested documents are simple electronic records and not a complex data request requiring significant redactions, Aleshire believed those items should have been released “within hours not days” of the Chronicle’s initial request Thursday.

Spokesperson Beth Wolf said County Judge Bob Hebert was not available for comment Tuesday. She had directed requests for information about the wage proposal to the human resources department and the director of health and human services, who did not return emails or phone calls Tuesday morning.

Advocates also questioned whether Fort Bend’s public agenda notice followed “the spirit of the law.” It noted only that commissioners would consider “adjustments to salary structures,” but did not provide any detail to suggest it was a raise or the size of the proposed increase.

“The public has a right to know exactly what the vote is being taken on before the vote happens,” she said.

No public discussion

Commissioners unanimously approved the item without discussing its details, noting only that the costs of raises would be offset by overtime savings. The raises were estimated to cost about $753,000 through the end of September, according to a separate agenda item.

Fort Bend idled some ambulances last year when it could not fill about 20 percent of its paramedic positions.

In an interview following the vote, Edwards described the two-part wage changes for EMTs and paramedics as a way to prevent experienced staff from being lured away and accepting other ambulance jobs with better pay.

Because some new hires were making more than veterans with similar expertise, Edwards said some employees had their base salary adjusted to a new pay grade. A second part of the proposal increased salaries across all pay grades. The combined effect was an average increase of 22 percent among the 81 affected employees. He declined to provide a copy of the old or new wage scales so those percentages could be translated into possible dollar amounts.

The county’s website for job listings, however, includes two openings: One for a paramedic apprentice at $1,122 biweekly and one for a director of emergency medical services at $3,116 biweekly.

James Patterson, the only commissioner who could be reached for comment, said he wanted the county to follow the letter of open government law, but thinks it does not provide adequate privacy to public employees. He said that is why he did not support sharing details of wage changes with the public before a vote. The county typically provides supporting materials for nearly all agenda items.

“I admit it is public record,” Patterson said. “But for me to share a document that shows what 100 employees are making, I am walking on the edge of having those employees very upset with me.”

‘Brazen’ violation

Edwards said it is common practice for Fort Bend County not to share details of proposed wage changes with the public to avoid confusing employees who might be affected. He did not think that decision was related to the public’s right to know about county finances.

“There’s a laundry list of reasons to delay or withhold public information and being concerned about whether people might be confused is not one of those,” Aleshire said. “This was a brazen, flagrant violation of the Texas Public Information Act to promptly produce public information.”