Q: A death row inmate filed a writ of habeas corpus to contest his imprisonment. This is a ground zero, front-page news story in my coverage zone. I need to study the writ and it is about 500 pages in length. A copy for public viewing resides in the district clerk’s office, but I do not have time to sit in the district clerk’s office to read the document, take notes, flip pages back and forth, make calls, etc. I was ready to pay 10 cents per page, but the district clerk said a digital version of the document is not available and she cited Government Code Sec. 51.318, FEES DUE WHEN SERVICE PERFORMED OR REQUESTED. A certified or non-certified copy of the writ would cost $1 per page. My budget will not cover a charge totaling several hundred dollars. What options do I have?
A: How about using a smart phone to record images of pages? The district clerk’s office would not burn much staff time in putting the document in front of you. The downside is that you could miss a lot in skimming your way through the document and snapping photos of just those pages that seem to contain key information. You might have do the bare bones in the first story, then break up the rest of the story into small pieces and finish the job in installments. If you do that, it can work well to include a nut graph or meme explaining or identifying the series in each issue.
Q: I see differences in the amounts our local governmental bodies charge for public information. Where can I go to find the latest on how much can be charged?
A: Check the Texas Attorney General’s webpage, https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/og/charges-for-public-information.
Also, thanks to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, anyone with a computer and a worldwide web connection can go to www.foift.org and click to https://foift.org/resources/texas-cost-rules/.
While you are at the FOIFT site, please find the embedded link to Copy Cost Rules that are a component of the Texas Administrative Code. That link may come in handy if or when you have to prove what charges are reasonable to a custodian of public information or to some other gatekeeper who stands between you and the information you are seeking.
Q: The city I reside in — and the city I cover week after week and year after year — aims to pass a bond issue without publishing a public notice in the only newspaper that is published within the city limits or its extraterritorial jurisdiction. That newspaper happens to be my newspaper. The city is posting information about the bond issue on its webpage. The less notice the better, as far as they are concerned, because a low turnout will make the bond issue easier to pass. I plan to demonstrate — in the friendliest way possible — what the city’s obligations are, as far as public notice of this proposed bond election is concerned. Can you help?
A: See Government Code Chapter 1251, BOND ELECTIONS, establishing that a county or municipality may not issue bonds that are to be paid from ad valorem taxes unless the issuance is first approved by the qualified voters of the county or municipality in an election. There is a process for accomplishing that and it includes a public notice requirement under Sec. 1251.003, CONDUCT OF ELECTION, and it sets forth the following:
(a) The general election laws govern the election except as provided by this section.
(b) The order for the election must include the location of each polling place and the hours that the polls will be open.
(c) The election shall be held not less than 15 days nor more than 90 days from the date of the election order, subject to Section 41.001(b), Election Code.
(d) In addition to the notice required by Section 4.003(c), Election Code, notice of the election shall be given by:
(1) Posting a substantial copy of the election order at:
(A) Three public places in the county or municipality holding the election; and
(B) The county courthouse, if the election is a county election, or the city hall, if the election is a municipal election; and
(2) Publishing notice of the election in a newspaper of general circulation published in the county or municipality holding the election.
(e) The notice required by Subsection (d)(2) must be published on the same day in each of two successive weeks. The first publication must be not less than 14 days before the date of the election.
(f) To the extent of a conflict between this section and a municipal charter, this section controls.
Q: The city council is planning to make a major purchase. What is the notice requirement for that?
A: First, Local Government Code Sec. 252.021, COMPETITIVE REQUIREMENTS FOR PURCHASES, sets the minimum amount to trigger the competitive bidding requirement at $50,000.
Second, in the same chapter, Sec. 252.041, NOTICE REQUIREMENT, you will find the following:
(a) If the competitive sealed bidding requirement applies to the contract, notice of the time and place at which the bids will be publicly opened and read aloud must be published at least once a week for two consecutive weeks in a newspaper published in the municipality. The date of the first publication must be before the 14th day before the date set to publicly open the bids and read them aloud. If no newspaper is published in the municipality, the notice must be posted at the city hall for 14 days before the date set to publicly open the bids and read them aloud.
(b) If the competitive sealed proposals requirement applies to the contract, notice of the request for proposals must be given in the same manner as that prescribed by Subsection (a) for the notice for competitive sealed bids.
(c) If the contract is for the purchase of machinery for the construction or maintenance of roads or streets, the notice for bids and the order for purchase must include a general specification of the machinery desired.