Monkey Business with Open Records Requests At The City

ep-censoredNo matter how much things change the more they stay the same. I do not trust the city to give me accurate and up to date information pursuant to my open records requests. It is a constant battle trying to pry information from the city that results in unnecessary work and erroneous information. Whether this is a result of an attempt to keep information away from the community, incompetence or both I still do not know. Whatever the case it is extremely irritating.

Last Friday I updated you on the Basic IDIQ bid issue. I submitted an open records request asking for information on any change orders issued to the company. I thought I was specific enough yet somehow the information I received does not coincide with the public record.

I asked for “a list of change orders requested by or issued to Basic IDIQ showing the date the request for change order was submitted, the amount of the change order request and the description for the work the change order request is for; whether such change order has been approved, or not approved by city council or whether the change order is pending processing by the city or whether the change order was declined by the city starting on January 14, 2015 through October 16, 2014.”

You probably noticed that I inadvertently typed a five, instead of a four for the starting year. The city caught that and asked me to clarify if I had meant 2014. I responded that I had meant 2014. In response to my open records request, I received one change order for Basic IDIQ.

The change order the city sent me was for a project titled “Five Points Terminal Renovation and Improvements BI Project Number 15-1800-86.” The total amount of the change order was for $28, 898.64.

At first glance, it appeared that the change order was one of the ones discussed at the city council meeting of October 14. However as I looked closer at the four-page document I received from the city I realized that the contractor’s letter asking for a change order was dated December 17, 2013.

The contract for the San Jacinto Plaza was not awarded until the following year, in December to be specific and therefore this change order could not have been related to the San Jacinto project.

Unfortunately, this left me in a quandary. I submitted a request for copies if change orders, “whether approved, or not approved by city council or whether the change order is pending processing by the city.” I also added that I also wanted change orders even if the city had declined them.

I believe that my wording was asking for any change order submitted to the city by Basic IDIQ whether paid, not paid, accepted, or declined by the city. Basically, any change order submitted by them to the city.

Except for the one change order, the city did not send me any other copies of change orders. Yet, city council on October 14 publicly heard that three change orders were approved for Basic IDIQ. On one hand, the city is telling the elected officials that three change orders have been processed and on the other hand, the city tells me that there is only one, unrelated change order.

I realize that there could be a technicality here and that the change orders referenced by the city at the council meeting on October 14 were issued to a subsidiary of Basic IDIQ, or a partner however, I doubt that. I guess to get to the bottom of this dilemma I could submit another open records request specifically asking for copies of the three change orders discussed during the city council meeting of October 14.

This begs the question though, how many open records requests are necessary to get the expected information and how many are too many? I am cognizant that filing open records requests end up costing the taxpayers of the community in staff time and city resources. Therefore, I consciously limit my filings and look for the information before actually filing the request.

However, this latest example has me furious and believing that the city is monkeying around with the responses that I get for my open records requests.

5 thoughts on “Monkey Business with Open Records Requests At The City

  1. Martin,

    I suspect that part of the problem may be that an ORR will only ever catch things that exist as records and the city has become one of the most paranoid institutions out there. The folks filling those ORRs may be doing their best to actually dig up everything there is, but it is common knowledge that they can’t produce what does not exist so a lot of things in the city are handled with as little paperwork as possible.

    One possibility is that those 3 change orders might have been agreed to verbally and not written down yet. They might be waiting until the end of the project to put everything in writing. That’s not uncommon in construction and while it certainly isn’t a “best practice” I suspect that we can both agree that the city is not renowned for it’s adherence to “best practices.”

    Just this last week I noticed that the item for doing work on Yandell (item 3.3) for St. Clements school was missing some key information (the conceptual drawings showing the proposed work) and it’s only in the very last page that you see that they will be removing one lane on Yandell to help out a private school nearby. I don’t recall seeing much public outreach or discussion on this item previously, but since it’s designed to help a school that Niland is a big supporter of it’s ok to put it on consent agenda with incomplete information and no presentation to refer to (look at how much of a fuss Robinson made about agreements between the City and TxDOT). Then it just gets pushed through without a single peep from anyone (including Robinson or Limon). I think that right there shows you how the city tends to work to obscure and obfuscate what it’s going on because the powers that be know how to game the system (including ORRs). It seems like when they disagree you end up with random (often times stupid) tiffs over city attorneys or seating, but when they all agree or decide to go along so they can get what they want, then bam, things like that slide through with no problem and no public discussion.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the State of Texas has any interest in strengthening these laws so we’re left largely just doing our best to find out what we can about what’s going on at City Hall with as little cooperation from our elected officials as they can possibly get away with. I don’t think anything illegal is necessarily going on, but something at least somewhat morally questionable certainly is.

  2. I do have to agree with Martin here – either they are purposely not giving him the information or they are truly incompetent. Either way, they haven’t complied with this ORR and that’s flat out against the law.

    1. Wow, pardon me for saying so but hearing you agree with Martin seems like a sign of the apocalypse 😉

      While I don’t disagree that the city is up to shennanigans in some way shape or form, I’m not convinced that they are actively keeping information they have from Martin.

      What I’ve heard from various folks at the city (from low ranking secretaries on up) is that they are all paranoid about what they put in writing and they are very sensitive to the threat of ORRs.

      This makes me think that you could see situations in which Basic and Engineering could effectively agree to what they are doing but avoid documenting it until the last possible moment so that they effectively avoid discovery through and ORR.

      It seems like a lot of people are trying to use ORRs as a pre-emptive weapon so they can try to see what is currently going on or being said even though it seems like their best use is more as a forensic tool once the dust has settled and things are “official”

      It seems like they will bet you some information on things that people didn’t expect to be called out on, but for the more contentious and obviously frought issues (eg the seating thing, real estate deals with developers, etc) the people involved know that they can be subject to an ORR so the will keep things verbal and really limit what they say about those items through city emails and city documents.

      1. To clarify, when I said the city is not keeping information from Martin above, I meant documents that might be discoverable through an ORR.

        I am fairly certain they are keeping information from all of us. I would fully believe that they may be following the letter of the law while giving all of us and our ORR a big ol’ middle finger (sadly since EP is in Texas that’s not really an unusual way to handle things).

  3. The project is currently over 6 mil now, in fact the city gave BASIC IDIQ an increase change order to delete the concrete bellow the pavers. So basically we as tax payers are paying Basic to give us pavers over dirt instead of pavers over concrete.

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