One year, three months, and counting; Houston yet to comply with open records act

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Houston City Hall

HOUSTON — More than a year after a recycling company which failed to get city business asked for emails from one of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s cabinet officials through the state’s public records act, city officials still have not released all of the requested emails and were questioned Tuesday by a judge about the lack of disclosure.

“Can you tell me today that you have responded to their request?,” Judge Kristen Hawkins of the 11th Civil Court asked asked Fernando De Leon of the Houston Legal Department.

“So we’re in the process, we’re in a continuing process of doing so,” De Leon answered. “We are still working on some production.”

Recycling firm EcoHub, through its consultant Wayne Dolcefino, first asked for the records in January 2017. The records sought included communication from Director of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Harry Hayes, as well as several other officials. The records were asked for under the Texas Public Information Act, or TPIA.

EcoHub CEO, George Gitschel, and Dolcefino have asked for other communication from officials at City Hall in 2017, in March and in July. It is unclear how many of those requests have been complied with — or if any have at all, according to EcoHub and Dolcefino attorney Stewart Hoffer.

“Here we are, one year and three months later and we still have very few documents, none responsive, to those initial TPIA requests in January and March,” Hoffer told The Texas Monitor in an interview after the court hearing. “There’s one in July that the city didn’t even respond to, and waived all their objections to and we still don’t have all the documents.”

Hoffer said the city seems to have a ready stream of excuses.

“Every time we go before the court, it’s ‘well Judge, we’re working on it, we’re trying,’” he said. “I don’t know why it takes the city of Houston so long to produce documents responsive to these very narrow requests, especially since the city has 20,000 employees on its payroll. My firm has under 50 employees and we are expected to, and comply with, the rules that require my clients to produce documents, which is 30 days or less.”

Hoffer said he would be filing additional motions in the next month or so.

“We just don’t know,” Hoffer said when asked if he believed his clients would see all the documents they’ve asked for. “I don’t know if we will ever know.”

De Leon and the other members of the city legal team, in court Tuesday, declined an interview when approached after the hearing.

The hearing Tuesday in Hawkins’ courtroom dealt with the city asking the judge to reconsider an order she issued in connection with one of the other 2017 TPIA requests. She did not rule but is expected to soon.

The open records saga began with Gitschel’s firm not being considered by the Turner administration after years of working with the previous administration on an innovative recycling plan that was backed by other companies, as well as by a grant from the Bloomberg Foundation.

EcoHub’s initial proposal to the city was called the “One Bin” process.

“One Bin” was a plan to collect all trash, recycling and yard waste in one can and recycle as much as 75 percent of it. The company proposed reducing garbage truck routes from three to one and putting all trash and recycling in just one bin. EcoHub would then sell the recycling materials for new products.

An email obtained by The Texas Monitor suggests that Gitschel’s firm and his “One-Bin” recycling plan never had much of a chance to win a bid under Turner.

The city’s current recycling plan is a $37 million, 20 year recycling deal. It was ultimately approved in January, with Spain-based FCC — Fomento de Construcciones Y Contratas — winning the day.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

20 COMMENTS

  1. The penalties should not be aimed at anything taxpayer funded. The penalties need to strike them as individuals. Jail time and fines directed at the individuals, where it must come from their own bank account

  2. Another thing at the discretion of the government is to declare you a nuisance “because you have to many open records requests and it hampers employees from doing their job. I still d

  3. It’s PAST time for the judge to send city officials to jail for not complying. Company executives would be in jail, if it were turned. All the judge has to say is that the head of the city legal department will be in jail starting in 7 days, and shall remain in jail until FULLY under compliance. Problem solved judge! After over a year of the city not being in compliance, the judge herself should be facing the state bar association for not enforcing state law. How long has this “look the other way, non enforcement” judge been on the bench? She may need a cot to sleep on in her chambers, because the city will keep dragging its feet, as long as she just only scolds them, without them being held criminally responsible as individuals.

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