If you would like to know how Sylvester Turner spent $400 million of your tax money without City Council approval, it will cost you a cool $2.8 million to find out.
Under City rules, the mayor can sign contracts up to $50,000 without Council approval. In January, we got a tip from a City employee that Turner was aggressively using this rule to benefit some of his cronies and that if we were to file an Open Records request for those contracts, we would find some very “interesting” expenditures. So, we filed a request for all contracts the City had entered into since Turner took office but had not been approved by Council.[i]
Under the Texas Public Information Act (“TPIA”), the City is entitled to recover its costs in producing any documents. Last week we received a letter from the City Attorney stating that the cost of copying the contracts would be $2.8 million and if we would send over a check for 50% of that amount, they would begin copying the contracts.
The cost estimate stated that it would take 155,000 hours to assemble the documents. That is 75 people working full-time for a year.[ii]
There are two possibilities here. The first, and I think most likely, is that the cost estimate is a desperate attempt to conceal what is in those contracts. The other is that Turner has actually entered into so many contracts that were not approved by Council that it would take 75 people working for a year to copy the contracts. I am not sure which of those two possibilities I find more disturbing.
Transparency is the cornerstone of an efficient and ethical administration. Turner’s administration has been the most opaque in my lifetime. In his very first budget, Turner deleted hundreds of pages of detailed schedules about how the City’s money was spent. According to the Attorney General’s office, the Turner administration has filed over 1,400 objections to TPIA requests filed by citizens and the media. This is the exact opposite of transparent government.
In the coming weeks, I will be announcing a comprehensive ethics/transparency plan that I will implement when I become mayor. Part of that plan is that EVERY contract the City signs will be placed on the City’s website with a searchable index. Also, my administration will report to Council and the public each month as part of the Monthly Operating and Financial Report any contracts that were signed that month but that were not approved by Council with a brief description of the purpose of each, the amount, and a hyperlink to the contract.
These are easy things to do. The only reason any mayor would not do them is because he or she wants to hide from taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent.
Houstonians deserve better than this. If you want a truly transparent administration, please consider supporting our campaign to clean up City Hall and get it back to the basics of providing those core municipal services which you are entitled to expect.
[ii] In addition to their absurd cost estimate, the City also filed an objection to the production of apparently some of the documents as being “confidential.” Exactly how a City contract is confidential is beyond me. If you would like to see the actual correspondence between us and the City, here are links to the documents: