The Cost of Transparency

rightsofdemocracyThe last few weeks I have been organizing my financial transactions for last year in preparation for filing my tax returns. In so doing I looked at what it cost me in 2013 to file open records requests with various government agencies for my blogging activities.

I spent $784.39 in direct expenses for filing open records requests in 2013. It doesn’t surprise me that the City of El Paso accounted for the single most expensive individual request. Part of the amount I spent was the cost to submit my requests via the US postal service because of the lack of trust in the process I have been forced to develop by recent events. I was looking for accountability and thus I documented the process by using the postal service to submit my requests officially. The rest of the expenses were the actual costs levied by the various entities to provide me the information I requested.

I submitted requests to the State of Texas, the City of El Paso, the County of El Paso, the US federal government and various Mexican government offices.

Surprisingly my access to public information in Mexico is not only efficient but it did not cost me a single penny notwithstanding the fact that I was requesting public information from outside of the country. Even the notoriously secretive Department of Defense was forthcoming with every one of my requests. In fact, Mexico makes it easy to gather public information. Every request for information is entered into a database accessible from the Internet. Therefore, if someone has already requested a specific piece of data you can view the request and the answer provided by the government entity. If the information you are requesting has not been requested previously you can submit your own request electronically and the results will be published online for everyone one else to access. It is a very efficient process for everyone.

Unsurprisingly my largest expense was with the City of El Paso. Although I cannot prove it, my feeling is that the city purposely makes it difficult for some people to access the public information held by them. The city puts up all sorts of obstacles when convenient for them to make it time consuming and expensive to gather information.

In my case, at least twice the city provided me clearly erroneous information in response to my open records requests and at least one time made it extremely expensive to get the information I was looking for. The now infamous search for a picture of Steve Ortega’s hand on Veronica Escobar’s chest went from a simple request for one picture to an over $100 endeavor that resulted with about 1000 pictures. The search for the illusive picture revealed to me the various shenanigans played by the city to discourage the disclosure of embarrassing information seemingly in an attempt to protect certain politicians.

It took 60 days to finally receive the illusive image that was the impetus of the original open records request. The pettiness started with the city refusing to accept a US postal service money order from me and ended with me having to send a certified receipt requested demand letter directly to Joyce Wilson demanding the picture.

To write that I have zero trust in the city honorably responding to my open records requests is an understatement. On the other hand, my most recent open records request to the Housing Authority resulted in a complete and drama free response that was surprisingly an example of how government transparency should work.

All of the other entities I have dealt with so far have their own idiosyncrasies but I have not felt like they were purposely trying to hide the information I was seeking.

I thank God for having the resources to pay the associated fees and to invest the numerous other resources that I do to share the information with you. However, it is important to remember that a Democracy can only function through an open and transparent government. Having to pay for the costs involved in asking for government records is not Democracy at work.

In today’s highly technologically centric world, it makes no sense that government records need to be disseminated manually. As complex as government is it only stands to reason that it requires technology to function efficiently and thus the people’s information should be readily available by the click of a few buttons.

I can’t help and think that relying on manually delivering information pursuant to open records requests is not a result of incompetence but rather a result of an attempt to keep secrets.

Unfortunately, for me, my expenses in seeking government information did not stop at filing open records requests. I spent over $2,000 in fees last year to access court records for information. How can anyone reconcile those fees with a court system supposedly based on transparency as its claim to it being one of the best in the world? Isn’t the court system supposed to be for the people and by the people?

Moreover, for those who continue to question if I have a right to question El Paso government they might be interested in the fact that my tax filing includes payments I made last year to various El Paso taxing entities for property taxes.

However, it is important that I make it clear; I will continue to write about El Paso politics as long as corruption continues to flourish there.

Owning, or not owning property does not convey any rights to anyone to comment on government policy anywhere in the world. The right to comment on public policy is inherent on everyone regardless of whom they are or where they live, and thus I will continue to write about El Paso.

One thought on “The Cost of Transparency

  1. The Texas Public Information Act [TPIA] which now is actually the cite for ‘open records’ requests allows for a Gov’t body to waive search fees if ‘not for profit’….I have the backup material on this somewhere and have cited it in all my requests…its ‘not for profit’ ie does not have to be ‘a non-profit 501 etc’….it says waive or reduce….also if one or agent goes physical to Gov’t office to view the docs in live person costs can be saved that way.

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