Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Info No Benefit To Public - "No Refund Will Be Given"

According to a ruling from the Records and Warrants Division of the McLennan County Sheriff's Office, information about the release on personal recognizance of violent felony offenders is not in the public interest.

When the Legendary requested a comprehensive report on the matter, officials charged $69.54 to “program” an existing database at the rate of $10 per minute.

The corridors of cyberspace are tricky, their arcana exacting and difficult to master.

For instance, when making a public information request to public officials, it is well to ask for the answer in electronic format.

Hundreds of pages of hard copy cost hundreds of dollars.

However, should the response be in .pdf or delimited format? Careful, now. Like mama said about that famous box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.

We got ours in .pdf format so it could be transmitted by e-mail, though we merely asked for an electronic format.

We should have asked for a delimited format so we could take advantage of the database's capability to automatically search and sort the information. Live and learn. All part of growing up, and other words to that effect.

Here is what we were seeking. In the past couple of years, certain violent offenders accused of injury and serial sexual abuse of children, attempted capital murder and domestic violence have been released on a basis of having to provide no surety bond fee after languishing for 90 days or more in the county lockup under no Grand Jury indictment. Busy, busy, busy, you know.

Who are these people and how many of them are out there?

Fair question.

How does one make sense of a massive report containing nearly 3,500 separate records if there is no way to search and sort the data?

You find an information technology technician who is able to make the conversion using some fancy software and go on from here. That's how you do it. Takes time and effort, but that's how you do it.

We asked for a refund under a certain section of the Open Records Act in which if there is a benefit to the general public, fees for copying and programming may be waived.

The response:

“Mr. Parks: This office is not aware of any benefit to the general public served by your individual request. Furthermore, you request for information required additional information in the format requested. Therefore, no refund will be given.”

“Government is the servant and not the master of the people,” according to the law of the land.

That law, Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, liberally construed, guarantees positive results:

Sec.552.001. POLICY; CONSTRUCTION.(a)Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.
(b)This chapter shall be liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information.

According to open records wonks, the trend to seek the opinion of the Attorney General before releasing information over the past few years has been on an upward trend – 42.5% higher. The result is that there are something like 82% fewer requests to process.

There are no guarantees.

In many cases, officials take advantage of a 10-day delay period granted under the law to provide information if such a request is necessary. Certain departments have begun to make the assumption that there is an automatic 10-day grace period, which is not the case.

In many other instances, records clerks want to know “Who are you with?” They mean what major media outlet, law firm, or the like, do you represent?

The law is very clear on that matter. You don't have to be anyone special. Any member of the public may request public information.

Why do you need the information?

No need to go there, either. Withholding the information is a criminal offense.

Therefore, all the information you have been reading in The Legendary regarding the release of violent offenders is not in the interest of you, the public.

Sorry about that. We should have checked with the clerical staff first. Oh, well, you live and learn.


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