Open Records Request and Money Orders Update

As many of you already know last Tuesday city council discussed the city’s process for open records. Lilly Limon put item 14B on the agenda for discussion. The item was posted as “Discussion and action on the process used to provide open records requests.” As I have stated numerous times before; I have never had any form of communication with either Emma Acosta or Lily Limon. I, like most of you, learned of the agenda item through the city’s website when it was published. However, apparently they read my blog because I became part of the discussion. As someone who frequently comments on political issues, it is not surprising to me that a politician either reads or is apprised of the content on my blog.

That is the prudent thing any politician should do.

As the discussion began, Limon explained that she was seeking an explanation as to the process and how does the city goes about determining what information is releasable or not. Limon also asked if a city representative who received a request whether they would be allowed to unitarily release the information requested. The city attorney advised against that citing that the privilege belongs to city council and not to the individual representative.

Staff, through Julie Lozano, offered a presentation on how the process to release records is handled by the city. As she was explaining how payment for fees is handled, Emma Acosta interjected and asked if money orders were acceptable. Lozano stated that “there is an issue with the money orders”. During the discussion between the city attorney and Lozano and further questioning by Acosta the consensus was that they did not know the reason that money orders were not acceptable, however that it was not a legal impediment rather that it was a “financial services” issue. However they were not sure and stated that they would clarify it after the presentation.

As part of the city’s process, any open records requests in regards to the city council or mayor’s office that are received their offices are automatically notified and provided copies of the released documents. However during the discussion it appears that those requests involving Emma Acosta have not been automatically given to her as per the city’s own policy.

After the staff presentation, Joyce Wilson stated that the city does accept money orders. Wilson added that when the system was first setup financial services was not setup to handle money orders. However they now accept them.

Interestingly, as of yesterday, October 24 I have yet to receive any official notification that money orders or acceptable. What I have received to date has been that the city will “ensure” that they are able to process my money orders.

Limon stated that she knew there was a request for photographs from district seven computers and wanted to know the status of that request. Lozano responded that those have not been released yet because it involved numerous computers. Lozano added that there is a “small amount” of money still owed on that request.

In case you have not connected the dots yet, the request Julie Lozano commented on specifically involves the request I submitted that has been held up because of the money order issue. The request mentioned by Lilly Limon was another request submitted by me where the city had already responded that there were “no responsive” documents and therefore it had been closed.

Because city staff was unprepared to answer a question posed by Eddie Holguin regarding an open records request submitted by Karla Guevara Walton in regards to emails from and between city representatives during their August 27 meeting, city council postponed the item until after the call to the public portion.

The discussion on the open records request resumed with a presentation of how Guevara Walton’s request has been processed. Karla had requested “copies of all emails sent and received by City Council members and City Manager on August 27, excluding privileged communication”. Her request yielded 578 pages, according to the presentation. Also, according to city attorney Sylvia Firth, the documents being withheld by the city “are documents that are drafts of the offering information for the ballpark bonds”. They have asked the Texas Attorney General to review the documents because the city believes that releasing the documents would violate provisions of the Securities Act.

After that presentation, Sylvia Firth, addressed my request and acknowledged that there was a “confusion regarding money orders”. Firth also acknowledged that I communicated that I had sent in the money order for the additional fees and that the records would be released as soon as my payment was received.

In order to better understand the process and to clear up any confusion here is a timeline of my specific process. Remember, as expressed during the presentation, the open records requests, like mine are themselves subject to open records requests. Therefore feel free to request a transcript of my specific request so that you can compare it to my narrative below. The reference number is: W001288-090913.

On September 9, 2013 I submitted an open records request asking for “digital images, or photographs of any immediate-past city representative on any computer device currently in use by, or in any city representative’s office.”

On September 18, 2013 I received a response letting me know that “it is being estimated that there are approximately six (6) DVDs, and it is estimated that it will take 6.25 hours to locate the files and copy the records with the information you requested.” The letter included a request for a “deposit” in the amount of $116.25.

It has been my experience that it takes between three to four days for a First Class letter to travel between Orlando and El Paso. Also keeping in mind that the city is only open four days a week therefore I am used to the time lag between me mailing the payment and receiving the acknowledgment for it.

On October 2, 2013 I received an electronic letter telling me that the city had received my money order, however “as stated in the invoice sent to you, the City takes cash, checks, and credit card payments”. The letter goes on to state that the city does “not accept postal money order payments”.

On October 3, 2013, I responded that “I was not aware that postal money orders were not acceptable”. I explained that as “I use online billpay through my bank I only have temporary checks for the business account.” I asked if “a temporary check from the business account be acceptable to the city?”

That same day, Ms. Lopez responded electronically by asking if the temporary checks “have your name, address, etc. imprinted on the check?” In response to her query I let her know that the temporary checks are those issued by the bank when you open an account. I also offered to send a cashier’s check, however I added that I would question the added expense of doing so but would do it in order to expedite the process.

In response, Ms. Lopez wrote that she had explained the situation “to the Comptroller, and he is asking the treasurer to find a way to take the money order as payment for now and will look into how we will handle any future requests.”

On October 8, 2013, I sent a follow up to Ms. Lopez via the electronic portal asking for the status of my request.

On October 9, 2013, I again sent another request asking for the status of my request since I had not received a response to my previous request for an update.

On October 10, 2013 I received a response with an attached invoice. This new invoice reflected a total cost of $266.25 and after taking into account my $116.25 deposit the city was now asking for $150.00. The invoice broke down the fee as; “Personnel time spent to take requests, locate documents, and reproduce requested information, and actual time spent deleting or separating confidential information which is excepted from disclosure under Section 552.101, Govt Code.: $243.75”.

They then added a fee of $22.50 for the DVDs.

On October 14, 2013 I sent in a request via the electronic system asking “whether a US Postal Service Money Order is acceptable” for the payment.

That same day, I received a response from Irma Lopez letting me know that “A money order will be fine. Although the City is not setup to take money orders, I explained your situation to the Comptroller last time and he is working with me to ensure we can process any that you send us.”

On October 18, 2013, I let the city know that I had mailed a money order to them.

On Tuesday, October 22, 2013 the city council discussed open records requests and specifically addressed the one I have outlined herein and one from Karla Guevara Walton, from the Diario de Juárez.

Although I have received an electronic letter advising me that the city will “ensure” that they “can process” any money orders I send them there has still not been a formal city declaration on whether the city will formally accept money orders.

Although during the city council discussion Joyce Wilson stated that the city, does in fact, accept money orders as payment there is evidently still a question about whether it is policy or not. Without a formal policy, each and every time I send in a money order to pay for open records requests the ambiguity of the money order situation leaves each request open to interpretation.

As of yesterday, I am still waiting for the records I requested. I am also looking to see how best to get the issue of money orders officially resolved by the city. Any person interested in government transparency would want the issue of money orders resolved for the sake of expediency and to avoid questions of impropriety when releasing records that belong to the community.

I will let you know what I decide to do about getting the city to declare officially its policy on money orders for paying open records fees. Of course I will also let you know when I get the photographs I had requested from the city council computers.

I will be happy to answer any specific questions any of you may have. Please post them in the comments section below.

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