State Attorney General Ken Paxton says in his introduction to the Texas Public Information Act Handbook for 2018 that government transparency and open decision-making are fundamental principles of the law.

His preface to details of the law notes the Texas Constitution states, “All political power is inherent in the people” — and that means a free government should work for the people, not the other way around.

The attorney general will now get an opportunity to put his words to action in an appeal the Rockwall County Herald-Banner is filing to gain reasonable access to public records of the City of McLendon-Chisholm involving:

• Use of funds appropriated for fire protection services in the current fiscal year.

• The decision to cede 4,000 acres of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction to the City of Rockwall.

• Disputes between the city and its volunteer fire department.

• The lawsuit filed against the city by Communications Tower Group.

• Possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The records are related to the conduct of the City Council and Mayor Robert Steinhagen. Complaints about their handling of the issues were brought to the newspaper’s attention last month by anonymous tips from residents of McLendon-Chisholm.

In response, the Herald-Banner has been looking into the complaints, filing requests for contracts, meeting agendas and minutes, memoranda and city officials’ communications by e-mail or text message.

Requests for the records were delivered to McLendon-Chisholm City Hall on March 7. On March 10, City Secretary Lisa Palomba responded by e-mail, asking if the Herald-Banner would forgo records believed by the city to be subject to attorney-client privilege. If not, the city would seek a decision from the Texas Attorney General’s Office to exempt such records from public access.

On March 14, McLendon-Chisholm City Attorney David Paschall made the same request of the paper over the phone.

After consulting with the Texas Press Association, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and an attorney familiar with the Texas Open Information Act, the Herald-Banner decided not to limit the scope of the paper’s records request, preferring the Attorney General rule on the issue of exclusion.

On March 15, Palomba provided the paper with the estimated cost of complying with the records requests the city considered public documents. The bill:  $1,530 for 60 hours of labor costs to retrieve the records even though the paper agreed to provide a USB drive for transferring the data from the city’s digital records.

State law does allow the city to collect reasonable fees for public records requests for materials and labor, but the Herald-Banner considers the McLendon-Chisholm fee for easily available digital records exorbitant and not in the public interest. It amounts to a paywall that ensures that public records remain private.

Shortly after beginning its investigation, the Herald-Banner received a phone call from Mayor Steinhagen, who had heard that a reporter had begun asking various community members about the issues involved in the records requests. He insisted neither he nor the council had violated the state open meeting law.

However, the Herald-Banner was given information by residents that suggested otherwise with specific reference to a Feb. 13 meeting after the council adjourned.

That meeting was unintentionally recorded and the cameras seem to capture Steinhagen and four council members — Wayne Orchard, Scott Turnbull, Jim Herren and Adrienne Balkum — discussing city matters related to the May municipal elections.

Previously, a news report by WFAA-TV’s Tanya Eiserer indicated Steinhagen, Turnbull and Balkum had discussed the city’s dispute involving the volunteer fire fighters in a private meeting.

The primary objective of the Herald-Banner’s records request is to determine if any misconduct occurred or laws were broken by the city officials. That’s our responsibility to the community when accusations of questionable conduct are raised by residents.

The paper is in the process of appealing to the Attorney General’s Office the city’s fees for obtaining access to the public records. A decision could take as little as two weeks on that issue but the city’s request for a ruling on excluding what it says are client-attorney privileged documents could take up to 45 business days.  

Stay tuned for updates.

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