Conroe, June 18 – At the urging and advice of Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright, new Budget Office Director Amanda Carter has begun to release the request budgets from each County Department for Fiscal Year 2019 to this newspaper, after an Open Records Act request on May 31, 2018. Carter began releasing a small trickle of documents on Wednesday, June 13, and has steadily released documents of additional departments since that time.
The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, has confirmed with two sources who requested anonymity but are very close to Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal’s Office that Doyal’s “chief of staff” jim fredricks instructed Carter not to release the documents in response to the request for public information pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act/Open Records Act. When the Commissioners Court approved the hiring of Carter, however, on March 20, 2018, the Commissioners made clear that Carter would be responsible to the entire Commissioners Court rather than just to Doyal. Therefore, fredricks had no authority to order Carter with respect to this matter.
Doyal wanted Carter to claim an exemption under the Open Records Act for the “deliberative process,” meaning that some deliberations of departments are exempt from public information requests if they documents constitute deliberations that are underway. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his predecessors, however, have made clear that the “deliberative process” exception to the Open Records Act is a “very narrow exception” and only applies to matters that constitute the specific statutory duty of a County Department. For example, if a County Department’s duty were to determine whether someone should receive a fee or fine for running a red light, as defined in a Texas statute, then the County Department’s written deliberations prior to the ultimate decision would be subject to the exception. Since a County Department’s statutory duty, however, is not creating its own proposed annual budget or its organizational chart (also part of the public information request), the “deliberative process” exception does not apply. Furthermore, since the Departments have submitted their completed requested budgets and proposed organizational charts for the coming year, they are not involved in any ongoing deliberations regarding those matters.
Lambright and his staff of attorneys in the Governmental Affairs Division of the County Attorney’s Office have urged Carter and Doyal to release the documents all along. Carter, at first, acceded to fredricks’ direction, but ultimately decided to follow the legal advice of the County Attorney’s Office instead.
In fact, after her decision to release the documents, Carter has been very gracious about the whole matter.
These documents are an important window into the budget process to which the citizens should have access well before the so-called budget hearings at the end of July. Sources inside of Doyal’s Office have confirmed that the County Judge intends to close off citizen access to the budget hearings for the third year in a row, even though that would seem to violate Chapter 115 of the Texas Local Government Code.
This newspaper’s staff has begun to analyze the budget documents and will continue to analyze the remainder of them when they come into the paper’s offices, as citizen access to this information is vitally important.