Tuesday, June 21, 2005

An Open Letter to State Attorney General Greg Abbott

Mr. Abbott,

I am writing to you in regards to a problem that has become all too common and since your Legal opinions have the force of law in Texas, you may be able to help resolve some of these issues. I'm not a Lawyer, I am merely a citizen of the Great State of Texas. In the last year or two, I have experienced several instances of both public officials and private corporations playing rather fast and loose with public notification and open records access issues. For instance, Harris County Commissioners Court has posted on it's website yesterday that they will be having a hearing (apparently the ONLY hearing) and will be voting on a regional toll road plan today at 10:00am. How can the public or interested parties possibly throw down everything in their busy lives on less than 24 hours notice to go down to Commissioners Court on a Tuesday morning to participate in a hearing like this? They can't and the commissioners know this. METRO has been stonewalling Tom Bazan's open records requests for information concerning problems of stray current from the light rail tracks accelerating corrosion of underground structures such as high pressure gas pipelines and building foundations. Such pipeline corrosion could have the potential of killing thousands of people if it were to occur in the Texas Medical Center or Downtown. TXDOT has been stonewalling The Houston Chronicle on the Trans-Texas Corridor contracts with Zachary even after your office ordered them released. Just last year a company that wanted to build an asphalt plant in Spring posted the hearing notice for the air quality permit in a newspaper in Crosby 40 miles away! Nobody in Spring even knew this was happening until after the public comment period was already closed. It was only due to the massive public outcry that the company and the TCEQ reopened the hearing process out of embarrassment and threats of lawsuits. These are just a few examples, there are lots more. This is what I'd like to see done:

I would like a state website set up to act as a clearinghouse for public notifications such as hearing announcements and such searchable via zip code so that you don't have to worry about the notification being on a bulletin board in some county courthouse on the other side of town that nobody ever sees. Even better would be a voluntary sign-up system so that notices concerning specific zip codes would be automatically e-mailed to you. I would also like to see this clearinghouse show open record requests that are pending and whether they have been approved or denied and reason for denial.

I would like the notifications to be prompt and with enough forewarning that interested parties can attend or respond instead of being caught flat footed or worse, never even knowing the hearing has happened until too late to do anything about it. Ideally, hearing notices should be posted to the above proposed website at least 30 days in advance.

I think you can agree that there are good reasons for open government laws. Far too many elected and non-elected officials and private corporations are playing fast and loose with those laws and the quality of governance has suffered as a consequence. Houston is such a big place with so many overlapping jurisdictions that keeping track of just the ones in your neighborhood is a real chore even when the jurisdictions aren't actively trying to hide their actions. Add intentional malfeasance by the jurisdictions and things get very difficult. The best governance comes from active participation by the citizenry, any attempts to exclude the citizens from the process can bode no good.

This letter is an open one. I will be posting it to my website. I will also be sending similar letters to as many state legislators as I can. The status quo is not acceptable and something MUST change. I will be exploring every avenue I can to make sure this or something like it happens. Your cooperation and assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You.

All of my readers are encouraged to send similar letters to Mr Abbott as well as every state legislator you know. This is too important an issue to let lie. Mr Abbott's email address is greg.abbott@oag.state.tx.us

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