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Citizens accuse officials of withholding public information

Concerned citizens accuse Alice and Port of Corpus Christi of withholding public information
Posted at 10:47 PM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-07 23:56:10-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Texas's public information laws are designed to give the public access to government documents and other records that aren't considered confidential.

An entity is required to respond to requests for information within 10 days of receiving it, and then promptly provide the information.

Two concerned citizens in the Coastal Bend believe the Port of Corpus Christi Authority and the City of Alice are in violation of those open records laws by withholding the information they've requested.

Paul Willhite wants to know how much money the port has spent in its efforts to build a seawater desalination plant.

He says he submitted his request on March 3 of this year, but so far he says he hasn't received any documents.

"(It) seems like they’re trying to hide something from — that’s in this request — they don’t want it to be known," Willhite said.

He says the port has indicated that he will receive the information he requested by August 25, nearly six months after his initial request, and a port spokesperson released a statement defending those actions.

"The Public Information Act defines reasonable times and encourages information to be released promptly, however it also provides exceptions based upon the volume of information," the statement read. "The Port of Corpus Christi receives hundreds of requests annually and all are treated with great care and consideration. In this instance, given the volume and complexity of the request, we have notified the requestor of the necessary timeline to comply with the request."

On April 6, the Attorney General's Office notified the Port that Willhite had requested assistance in obtaining information from the port. Shortly after, the port notified him that documents would be provided within 30 days.

But, on May 25, he received another communication from the port indicating documents would take 90 days from the date of the email.

Alice resident Belinda Silva is concerned that city leaders may be conducting city business on personal social media pages and cellphones. She says it is illegal, but what the public information law says is that information is allowed to be requested under the law, not that it is illegal.

She claims the city has missed multiple deadlines when it comes to responding to her public information request for documents detailing the activity of city council members on those platforms and devices.

“I did just receive a thing from the city attorney telling me today that, in fact, that they’re standing by that they gave me all the records, and that that’s it," Silva said. "But they have not given me the records at all.”

City Manager Michael Esparza says Alice releases as much information as the city can in response to open records requests — but the city can't release information it doesn't have.

“Sometimes people ask for information from elected officials — private Facebook, private cellphones," he said. "We don’t have that in our possession. And so we ask for things from our elected officials, and if it’s not releasable, and we don’t have it, we can’t release it. If it’s a city-owned device, we have access to that, and we do release that."

Alice has made efforts to streamline its open records process. Any time it releases a record, it makes it publicly available to anyone on its website. The city manager saying that he believes in transparency and making information that is public, easily accessible.

The Texas Legislature often considers changes to the state's public information laws, and Rep. Todd Hunter of the Corpus Christi-area says the upcoming session in January will be no different.

He wants to make it harder for entities to break the law by withholding information and get away with it. He says time frames such as the ones Willhite has dealt with are excessive and not in the spirit of the law.

"You’ll be seeing some new open records, open meetings, and public information laws coming," Rep. Hunter said. "And one of them that’s being talked about is how do you enforce it when there is a disregard of the act.”