Monday, September 16, 2013

Courthouse information war carried to state level

Information is power. Withholding information is power to the third power.” - A wise old spit and whittle bench scribbler

Waco – McLennan County Commissioners rubber stamped a proposal to oppose automated information technology in District Court records by funding the clerks' three-day visit to a Lake Travis resort hotel for a day-and-a-half conference.

McLennan County
District Clerk
Karen Matkin
District Clerk Karen Matkin is president of a statewide professional organization of district clerks, who she says should oppose digitizing petitions and pleadings in criminal and civil lawsuits for online dissemination. They will meet at Horseshoe Bay, but Ms. Matkin and members of her staff will stay on to play for an additional two nights at taxpayer expense.

Her reason?

Local control of records, something Ms. Matkin, a former criminal prosecutor for the McLennan County Criminal District Attorney's office, thinks should be of paramount importance to the people who ride herd on public information generated by attorneys' filings of legal instruments in the Texas District Court system.

In a legislative alert, Ms. Matkin wrote: 

This is an alert concerning SB 753 and HB 981. This is the bill requiring clerks to provide an electronic copy of the index and charge only what the cost is as established under the Public Information Act. These bills are wrong on a number of levels. The first is that the District Clerks should be able to control their own records. It is classic interference by state government in the activities of local office holders. Under the rules concerning judicial documents the clerks are required to allow the public to examine the Court’s docket. Public access is not the issue. The intent of the bill is to force the bulk sale of indexes by clerks. This means that records that cost the taxpayers millions to develop will be sold for a pittance. The way the bill is currently written there is a serious question of whether clerks will be forced to digitize older records at a cost of millions of dollars, currently unnecessary four (sic) our purposes, only to sell them for a small sum.”

At the same time, the Court approved with little discussion and no opposition the transfer of funds of more than $800,000 from “contingencies” to funding the care and feeding of “overflow” prisoners at a privately-operated, for-profit jail built and maintained at taxpayer expense. Originally budgeted for a $1 million expense through the year, the bean counters predict that, as in previous years, the price will run to hundreds of percentage points more, thus throwing the budget into a huge deficit.
In the same raft of items in the contingency agenda, the Court approved an across the board increase in Sheriff's fees of 150 percent for some items such as “Citation by Posting” and by 20 percent for “Writs of Garnishment,” attachment, and possession.

County officials raised the local tax rate for 2013-14 by a little more than a nickel per $100 assessed valuation as a result.

The reason? According to the County Auditor, the deficit has eaten away at the prudent cash reserves of the corporation of McLennan County, to the point that the debt is otherwise unsustainable.

One may view documents attached to these actions by clicking here.

Why is all that of importance to taxpayers and the general public?

Certain decisions are made out of the scrutiny of the public that eventually wind up costing huge amounts of money in runaway debt service on tax-free municipal revenue bonds issued without voter approval as an economic development project of the county government.

The information that may be thus obtained often tells a much more complete story of expensive developments in local policy.

The story of how McLennan County, Texas, came to purchase the construction, maintenance and operation of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in what was represented as a for-profit jail through the services of CEC, Inc., a New Jersey-based corporation, comes to mind.

Had it not been for a certain lawsuit alleging a “breach of fiduciary trust” filed in Harris County, taxpayers may never have learned of the exact methods used to award the construction contract to an affiliated corporation, Hale-Mills Construction of Houston.

Accurate Air Conditioning complained that their employee, an estimator, was given exclusive access to plans and the construction site through the cooperation of then County Judge Jim Lewis and certain jail officials of the McLennan County Sheriff's Office.

Though the defendant, who had by then formed his own air conditioning company, countered the claim by objecting, depositions taken from Judge Lewis, then County Commissioner Joe Mashek, and a high-ranking member of the Sheriff's Department revealed exactly how other bidders were prevented from getting timely information that would have helped them prepare a competitive bid.

As a result of this exclusive arrangement, the man's former employer complained, other bidders were prevented from bidding, and so, due to the lack of information, they didn't even bother to try.

The parties wound up settling out of court in a take nothing agreement that was entered as having occurred due to lack of prosecution. The case was passed.

How does one obtain that information? You look it up on the internet, for free. The Harris County District Clerk's office has digitized its cases at what Ms. Matkin calls huge expense. Anyone, anywhere, can look it up at any time, simply because the records belong to the people, not the public officials who would like to keep them as obscure as possible.

One may read a more complete report on the matter by clicking here.

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