Houston and Conroe, July 22 – In light of the July 19, 2018, indictment of Darian Eve Ward, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s former press secretary, for illegally withholding public information requested under the Texas Public Information Act/Open Records Act, Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and the Montgomery County government generally should take heed that at least one prosecutor in Texas – the Harris County District Attorney – takes such matters very seriously. The Harris County Grand Jury indicted Ward, whom Turner suspended as his press secretary when the issue of her withholding public information arose, for failing to produce documents within her control in response to a public information request from a reporter.
The gamesmanship of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal with respect to public information requests has just recently come to a head with one public information request to which Doyal failed to respond for almost four months and to which he still has not responded. During March, 2018, a real estate developer submitted public information request to Doyal’s Office of County Judge. During the past week, it came to the attention of Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright and Doyal that Doyal failed to respond to the request.
Section 552.201 of the Public Information Act provides “The chief administrative officer of a governmental body is the officer for public information,” meaning that Doyal is the individual in the Montgomery County government on whose shoulders is the responsibility for compliance with open records requests. In the instance of this one public information request, the requestor sought documents concerning the Permitting Department, meaning that the requestor could have sent the request either to Doyal as the “officer for public information” or to the Permitting Department Director.
Section 552.221 of the Public Information Act provides: “An officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication, or both on application by any person to the officer. In this subsection, ‘promptly’ means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton as well as his predecessor Greg Abbott have made clear that under no circumstances should it take longer than ten (10) business days for a public information officer to respond to an Open Records Act request.
The matter came to a head during the last week when the requestor contacted both Lambright and Doyal to ascertain what the cause is of the delay. Of course, Doyal has no excuse.
Lambright has recently proposed making his office of the County Attorney into a central clearinghouse for public information requests both to assist the public and in order to ensure County government compliance with the law. Lambright has requested adding additional staff to the County Attorney’s Office for that purpose in Fiscal year 2019. The Citizens Budget Committee has endorsed Lambright’s request, particularly because he has also identified other cost savings within the County Attorney’s Office which will offset some of the additional expense.
Doyal has refused, as County Judge, to take his responsibilities as the County’s chief public information officer seriously. Under the Public Information Act, a request to Doyal constitutes a request for any County Department, other than for Departments which an elected official directs. Doyal, however, usually does not respond to such requests or responds by stating that he does not have the responsive documents. Doyal’s clear purpose has been to make public information requests as difficult as possible for the public by forcing requestors to guess from where they must submit requests in order to obtain public information within the County’s government’s custody. The Public Information Act, however, clearly puts all of that responsibility on Doyal.
With the indictment of Ward in Harris County, hopefully Doyal will take his responsibility as the chief public information officer seriously.
Lambright told The Golden Hammer, “We wonder how many other departments are getting these and not responding. I just wonder if there are a lot of those.”