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A South Texas candidate sues his town for records he says will prove his opponent's corruption

A South Texas candidate sues his town for records he says will prove his opponent's corruption
1 month 1 week 4 days ago Monday, April 15 2024 Apr 15, 2024 April 15, 2024 2:32 PM April 15, 2024 in News
Source: texastribune.org
Flags fly over Rio Grande City Hall in 2021. Town officials say they have a backlog of public records requests due to an unprecedented volume of requests from a city commissioners candidate. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

"A South Texas candidate sues his town for records he says will prove his opponent's corruption" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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RIO GRANDE CITY — A South Texas political candidate is suing his town over a bevy of public records requests, accusing officials of delaying the release of records he wants to prove his opponent is corrupt.

Rio Grande City officials took the unusual step of announcing on social media earlier this month that the request and subsequent lawsuit filed by Ediel Barrera was causing a backlog and that the public may have to wait longer than usual for their documents.

In a social media post, town officials called the volume of Barrera’s requests “unprecedented,” and described some of them as “vague or ambiguous.”

Barrera is a candidate for city commissioner in the upcoming May election. He is part of a slate of three candidates that includes his lawyer Gilberto Falcon. Falcon is running for mayor. Their campaign slogan is "Independent Leadership."

Barrera has submitted 10 public information requests to the city since Jan. 25 seeking to expose what he described as the mishandling of tax dollars.

A South Texas town of 15,200 residents, Rio Grande City proudly touts itself as the “Hill Country of the Valley.” The recent clash over documents is part of a long tradition here of highly-charged local elections with candidates hurling accusations of wrongdoing at each other.

Barrera on the campaign trail has broadly alleged that the current city commissioners and mayor are corrupt, saying the evidence he needs to prove his point would be in the documents he requested.

Barrera’s intended use of public records as a campaign weapon is part of a growing trend. Public agencies across the country increasingly have had to sort through an influx of public records requests filed to prove conspiracy theories. Elections offices in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Arizona and Virginia said such requests submitted after President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 prevented them from focusing on the 2022 election.

But concerned residents seeking to expose corruption can face tough roadblocks and may have little recourse but to sue a government agency to comply with public records laws.

Because lawsuits can be expensive, though, Barrera is just one of few who have gone so far as to pursue that option.

Deputy City Manager Noe Castillo declined to comment on the specifics of Barrera’s requests due to ongoing litigation. However, he assured the city was complying with state law.

Despite the announcement on social media that there was a strain on their resources, Castillo said the city had not shifted resources to handle requests and that their process for responding to them remained unchanged.

He also clarified that the motive behind the announcement on social media was to provide basic information to the public.

The town wanted residents to know "we do follow the process of open records and the way it's prescribed by law," Castillo said. "We always follow the procedures that we have."

Falcon took issue with the social media post, particularly with the city’s characterization of the requests Barrera had filed as "vague" or "ambiguous."

“They’re using it to put us in a bad light," Falcon said. “They didn’t have to say anything.”

Mayor Joel Villarreal declined to comment, referring The Texas Tribune to the town’s statement. Rey Ramirez, the incumbent Barrera hopes to unseat, did not respond to an interview request.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom Of Information Foundation of Texas, said it appeared the Rio Grande City was trying to be transparent with the public.

"Anytime a government does try to communicate with the public and let them know what's happening, that's a plus," Shannon said. "But, for those waiting for public information act requests to be filled, I'm sure it's frustrating."

Shannon added that the Texas Public Information Act allows governments to limit the amount of time they spend on a single requestor. That provision would allow the city to prioritize requests from other residents as it meets to fulfill Barrera’s.

According to a review of the city’s record’s request logs, the city received 17 requests between Feb. 1 and April 11. Six were from Barrera. Four of them included a list of multiple requests.

Barrera’s submissions included requests for copies of checks and job descriptions for work done by a single contractor over the last four years. He also sought copies of credit card statements for purchases made by the city commissioners, the mayor and the city manager during the last four years, and a copy of the city manager’s resume and job application.

He also requested a status update on a rehabilitation project for the city’s water treatment plant, a list of environmental violations, copies of city budgets since 2020, expenditure reports for the mayor and city commissioners, a status update on a sewer project, copies of all checks paid to an electric company and information on contracts, salary and other monetary compensation made to the city’s parks and recreation director.

In response, the city asked for clarification on several of the requests, said some requested records did not exist, and provided a cost estimate for a few of the requests.

For example, the city asked Barrera if his request for the city manager’s credit card statements pertained specifically to business-related expenses.

The city also said it would take at least a full business day to collect and copy all the credit card statements for city commissioners. The hourly rate would be $15.

Barrera filed his lawsuit in state district court, alleging only three requests had been fulfilled, in hopes the court will compel the city to turn over the pending documents.

Obtaining public records can be a time-consuming process. Although agencies in Texas are directed to “promptly” turn over the information, they ultimately have 10 business days to respond. However, they can request more time or they can seek clarification on a request which starts the clock on the 10 business days all over again.

If an agency wants to withhold all or part of the records, they can request an opinion from the attorney general who has another 45 business days to render a decision.

But Barrera views the city’s requests for clarification as a delay tactic.

“Rio Grande City is the only city where public records are private,” he said.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/15/rio-grande-city-public-records-election/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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