McAllen has to air its expensive laundry, thanks to new state law

0

No longer protected by a state disclosure law loophole, the City of McAllen revealed this week that it spent $485,000 in taxpayer money to hire Enrique Iglesias to perform for its winter holiday festival and parade in 2015.

McAllen fended off multiple public information requests for that information, contending they could keep details of its contract with Iglesias a secret. A new state law closing the loophole went into effect on Jan.1.

As The Texas Monitor reported last year, McAllen lost nearly $100,000 on tickets sales and other expenses for the concert and spent another $188,000 on the holiday parade.

“The City of McAllen has finally released the contract. Thank goodness,” Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said Wednesday. “A terrible Texas Supreme Court ruling in 2015 blocked public access to these kinds of contracts. Then, thankfully, this past year the legislature took action and stood up for the people’s right to know.”

The contract — larded with very specific requests by Iglesias and other performers — is not unlike the contracts of other celebrity performers that are regularly made public. The city paid for a charter flight for Iglesias and his entourage from Guadalajara, Mexico, and put them up for two nights in 24 hotel rooms.

The contract is specific about the number and types of sushi and sashimi meals that were to be served backstage. Iglesias insisted that 36 bottles of spring water, “Fiji only,” be available at room temperature. One bottle of premium Ketel One vodka was provided.

The refusal to tell taxpayers how much they were paying for Iglesias’ performance, meals, lodging, and other extras became a rallying cry for government transparency advocates. McAllen’s refusal to detail the costs came just months after the Texas Supreme Court ruled in Boeing v. Paxton that governmental bodies could keep information on contracts with outside companies secret for competitive reasons. 

In April 2018, the City of Harlingen, having spent nearly $17 million to build a new convention center, refused requests from a local newspaper to make public the contract with a San Antonio operating company that included the estimated annual operating cost for its services.

And last January, the City of Denton refused to release details of several contracts totaling $265 million to build the Denton Energy Center, the city’s new power plant.

The Texas Monitor on Wednesday contacted officials in Harlingen and Denton to determine if they were prepared to make public the contracts now that the new law is in effect. None of the officials contacted responded by the time this story posted. 

During the 2017 legislative session, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, was able to get a bill passed in the Senate that effectively rolled back the 2015 Boeing ruling. However, the House Government Transparency & Operations Committee, concerned with the protection of what it considered sensitive corporate trade secrets, refused to give Watson’s bill a hearing and it died. 

Last year, Watson partnered with state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, to author the bill that passed both houses and was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June. Watson and Capriglione said the bill was written carefully to protect some competitive information for businesses while compelling governments to help taxpayers understand if an outside contract, like the Iglesias concert, makes good financial sense.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling acknowledged after the concert losses were disclosed that the city had erred in handling the contract, ticket sales and promotion without hiring a professional promoter.

Shannon said disclosure of the Iglesias contract proves there was no reason to keep it from the public in the first place. “Texans must be able to examine how their tax dollars are spent,” she said.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here