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Frio County commissioners have agreed to research attorney general opinions through legal counsel over a fund reimbursement nearly three months after the county’s elections administrator allegedly failed to comply with an open records request.
During a meeting of the court on Tuesday, November 20, commissioners learned that local resident Mary Moore had sought a $1,649 refund for an open records request she submitted to Segura’s office on Thursday, Sept. 8.
That request, according to court testimony, was never filled, and Moore never received the documents she had asked for. Commissioners are now pressed to decide whether Moore should be refunded the amount she paid for the files.
“I asked Mr. [Carlos] Segura, [elections administrator] to be here if you all had any additional questions,” Frio County Auditor Crystal Marquez said. “I want to know why funds were accepted prior to completing the request.”
Segura said the law requires that his office give a customer an estimate if the request runs to a cost over $40.
“I was trying to be proactive,” the elections administrator said. “We have had this practice prior to Crystal. “We got burned before in the past where copies were made and people did not pay. Prior to Crystal being on board, we have always done that.”
Section 552.2615 of the Texas Government Code requires that estimated charges for records, including any allowable charges for labor or personnel costs, be itemized before the request is fulfilled.
Furthermore, Section 552.262 indicates that a governmental body may not charge an amount that is greater than 25 percent above the amount established by the attorney general.
The county does not have an open records policy.
“Ms. Moore said we were taking too long and she did not want it anymore,” Segura said.
Records filed at the elections administrator’s office show that Moore requested a refund on Monday, October 31.
Pct. 4 Comm. Jose Asuncion quizzed Segura on justification if the court rejected the refund request.
“My only concern is if work is done towards a sweeping request, how are you going to justify rejecting it,” the commissioner asked. “How much work did Gaelen do?”
“Three or four days,” Segura said. “And both of my ladies did a day. So you are talking about a week’s worth of work.”
According to Marquez, Segura obtained a Chapter 59 grant that would allow him to hire an employee.
“He was awarded two thousand dollars,” the auditor said in a Tuesday, Nov. 29, phone interview. “He could not hire anyone until the new fiscal year.”
Records filed at Marquez’ office show Gaelen Frazier began work on October 17, 25 working business days after Moore’s initial request on Thursday, September 8.
Frio County Judge Arnulfo Luna asked what percentage of work had been completed of the 3,298-page request and inquired if a pro-rated option was available.
“Well, the rate proposed is fifteen dollars per hour; we are doing it at thirteen dollars per hour,” Segura said. “I was trying to be cost effective in these things. I do not know where we are going to get these monies to pay.”
Segura sent a memo to Moore on Sept. 12 showing the cost at $2,870 for the forms she had requested. Moore amended her request two days later, and the new amount totaled $1,649.
A Sept. 15 receipt from the Frio County Treasurer’s Office shows Moore paid for the open records request in full.
Neither memo includes an itemized breakdown or labor charges.
Marquez said the reason she brought the issue before commissioners was that funds Moore paid were deposited into the county’s account during the period of the 2021-22 budget. The county’s annual budget entered its new fiscal year shortly thereafter.
“I guess we have to do some research and I would just hold off for now,” Luna said.
Pct. 3 Comm. Raul Carrizales asked if the attorney general’s office had a previous opinion regarding refunds.
“I can research it,” Frio County Attorney Joseph Sindon said.
A representative of the Texas Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday, Nov. 29, that in the event a requestor cancels a request, the attorney general’s office issues a letter; however, there are no AG opinions on the matter.
Additional research shows that there is no county policy for open record requests made to the county. County offices follow bylaws governed by the Texas Government Code with regard to requests for public information.
Segura’s office has a general form that does not include fees associated with requests.
Sec. 552.269 states a person who overpays for a copy of public information because a governmental body refuses or fails to follow the rules for charges adopted by the attorney general is entitled to recover three times the amount of overcharge if the governmental body did not act in good faith in computing the costs.
“If they had done partial work, I do not know,” Moore said. “No one contacted me after Sept. 15, so I just got frustrated because of their violation of the open records request.”
According to Texas Government Code, Subchapter E, Section 552.221, if an officer for public information cannot produce public information for inspection or duplication within ten business days after the date the information is requested, the officers shall certify that fact in writing to the requestor and set a date and hour within a reasonable time when the information will be available for inspection or duplication.
“This notice also serves to advise there will be a delay in providing you your requested information in view of our current workload, limited staff and as you know we were out just over a week earlier this month due to COVID,” a second memo from Segura’s office on Sept. 14 read.
The memo does not give an estimated date or time that the request would be fulfilled.
Segura told commissioners that his office had completed a portion of the requested information. What percentage of the request was completed, however, was not revealed in court.