Files Dallas Said Did Not Exist Suddenly Appear

Dallas City Hall
Dallas City Hall | Image by City of Dallas - City Hall/Facebook

Documents that Dallas officials claimed never existed inexplicably materialized during a dispute before the Texas Office of the Attorney General, leaving the City with plenty of questions to answer about its open records policies and procedures.

The Dallas Express filed a public records request seeking memos created by Deputy City Manager Kim Tolbert, who will soon assume the role of interim city manager upon the departure of City Manager T.C. Broadnax next month. These memos concerned material that would have fallen within Tolbert’s portfolio of responsibilities during her tenure in various roles with the City.

The City’s Open Records manager responded with a letter stating that DX’s request had been forwarded to Attorney General Ken Paxton.

“The City believes that some or all of the requested information is exempt from disclosure under the Public Information Act,” the City official said in the letter. “The City anticipates that one or more discretionary and/or mandatory exceptions apply to the responsive information.”

The City invoked a broad array of legal exceptions that it claimed applied to the material requested.

“At this time, the City invokes all of the exceptions provided by, and the exceptions incorporated into, Sections 552.101 through 552.162 of the Act. See Tex. Gov’t Code §§ 552.101– 552.162,” the City told Paxton’s office, according to the six-page letter. It did not clarify what specific exceptions were being invoked or on what grounds.

Legally recognized exceptions to the Texas Public Information Act generally include “personnel records, pending litigation, competitive bids, trade secrets, real estate deals and certain legal matters involving attorney-client privilege,” the Freedom of Information Foundation states on its website.

The information requested by DX focused on work produced by Tolbert. It is unclear why the City claims it perceived some of this material to fall under the statutory exceptions.

DX responded by swiftly challenging the Open Records manager, disputing every exception invoked by the City under the various applicable laws. Records available to DX do not indicate whether Paxton’s office ruled on the claimed exceptions or responded to either side’s communications.

Several days later, the Open Records office contacted DX, stating that the requested documents did not exist. Therefore, the City was withdrawing its request for a ruling on the exceptions from the attorney general.

“The City has reviewed its files and has determined there are no responsive documents to your request. We have withdrawn our request for an AG Ruling,” an email to DX read.

Then, the next day, records related to DX’s request materialized. The Digital Public Records Center provided three memos in response to the news outlet’s request. Later that same day, the City Secretary’s Office sent a message that it had located records responsive to DX’s request. However, no explanation was given for the seeming incompatibility of these statements.

DX contacted the City Secretary’s Office seeking comment on how records it claimed did not exist later materialized. DX also sought clarification on how the deputy city manager only produced three memos on subjects immediately related to her duties within the City during the several years she has been deputy city manager. No City officials had responded by publication.

This exchange follows previous polling by DX that shows broad public support for greater transparency in Dallas’ City government. When asked if they “support more transparency for the City of Dallas,” about 48% of respondents who identified as centrists said they wanted more transparency. Similarly, 57% of those who identified as center-left and just over 46% of respondents who identified as center-right said they wanted more transparency.

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