Faced with roadblocks, some Pasadena residents have given up on getting information out of the city, though state law is supposed to guarantee access.
(TNS) -- In north Pasadena, Texas, streets crumble and intersections flood after every rain, bringing aggrieved residents to City Council meetings to ask where their tax money is being spent. They say they're not getting answers.
The latest public works news on the city's website is four years old.
To get a list of street projects, residents have to file an open records request.
If they want to see where the city has sent checks in the past several years, it costs $90.
And if they want to sit in on a meeting to see how tax dollars are distributed to neighborhoods, they can't.
In Pasadena, the doors are closed.
Harris County's second-largest city has about 154,000 people, an annual budget of $207 million and a long track record of making it difficult for residents to obtain public information, according to interviews, newspaper archives and the Chronicle's records requests. Nearby La Porte, less than a quarter of the size, posts all of its capital projects and financial information online, along with check register data since 2013.
Faced with roadblocks, some Pasadena residents have given up on getting information out of the city, though state law is supposed to guarantee access. Even council members have been shut out on document requests.
The city mishandled eight records requests from the Houston Chronicle by, for example, failing to respond and missing deadlines by weeks when state law calls for prompt responses, usually within 10 days. Some requests were for basic information, like invoices and details of a lucrative tax collection contract held by Mayor Johnny Isbell's longtime friend.
The newspaper filed a complaint May 3 with the Texas Attorney General's office.
Separately, a City Council member complained to the county attorney of a potential Open Meetings Act violation by the city economic development board, which shut the public out of a presentation about a key project.
"This pattern of activity is clearly and strongly against the public interest and completely undermines the American tradition of democratic participation," said attorney Joe Larsen, who serves on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Isbell declined an interview. Now term-limited and serving out his last days as mayor after dominating Pasadena politics for much of the past 48 years, he has become a polarizing figure, assailed by opponents for shutting the public out of key decisions.
Councilman Jeff Wagner, an Isbell ally, emerged as the top vote getter earlier this month among seven candidates running for mayor. He is now the favorite in a runoff against John "JR" Moon Jr., a San Jacinto College trustee.
Wagner would be in a position to continue Isbell's domineering approach, able to break tie votes with the council evenly divided.
Wagner did not respond to a request for an interview on government transparency in Pasadena, nor did councilmen Bruce Leamon, Cary Bass and Darrell Morrison, who have long voted in a bloc with the mayor.
Isbell maintains that his own initiative led the city to start televising council meetings in the 1990s, bringing government to the people.
After a recent meeting, when a reporter broached the subject of transparency at City Hall, Isbell motioned to the council chambers and said, "I created (televised) meetings for transparency, period."
But much of the real business of council happens a half-hour earlier, during "pre-council." It's open to the public but off screen and in a separate, smaller room. Anyone watching on TV March 21 wouldn't have seen the pre-council discussion over Pasadena attorney Roy Mease's tax collection contract, where council members were rebuffed in attempts to get details about the terms.
At pre-council, members debate and department officials come forward to answer questions. Then the main meeting is usually a series of votes, the hard work already done. Because the city secretary's office doesn't post a detailed agenda online, anyone coming cold to a meeting is likely to have no idea what the votes are about, Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler said.
Discussions in pre-council can be hard to hear, even from the front row, especially when council members speak over one another.
Under state open government law, when a majority of council gathers, they aren't supposed to veer off the posted agenda. But that happens regularly here. On April 18, the council discussed a citizen's grievance about ballfield lights that wasn't posted.
Even discussions about spending taxpayer money have happened in the dark, according to court testimony by city officials.
The Neighborhood Network program awards about $100,000 a year to associations for beautification projects and other improvements. Board members are appointed by the mayor. U.S. Chief District Judge Lee Rosenthal found Isbell used the program to encourage people to vote for his loyalists and for a redistricting measure that would have disenfranchised Hispanic voters.
A city review board meets in private to decide on the awards. Afterward, the board announces the grants, without explaining why some projects were funded and some weren't.
"I don't see how there could be any question" that the review meetings should be public, Larsen said. "Deciding who gets the money is the most fundamental of government decisions."
Program manager Karen Hollon did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Another city board, the directors of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., the city's economic development agency, divided into separate groups in November to attend a contractor's presentation on proposals for a convention center. There was no agenda and no minutes for the discussion. Splitting up a quorum to hear public business without posting notice of the meetings is illegal, Larsen said.
The corporation's finances have been hard to decipher. City officials have tried to fend off allegations of discrimination by touting a figure that more than 60 percent of corporation projects have gone to the predominantly Hispanic north side of town, but a Chronicle investigation showed that figure is based on lists of projects that didn't happen or were dramatically scaled back. The agency has handled more than $100 million in capital improvements. Its meetings aren't televised. Nor are meetings of the Planning Commission, which shapes development of the city. Its agendas don't get posted online, another violation, Larsen said.
Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, part of the anti-Isbell faction, said delays and excuses for not fulfilling public records requests are common in Pasadena. He also questioned why campaign finance documents aren't posted online.
Wheeler said he hopes the incoming administration will improve transparency at City Hall and drive more people to participate in government and hold it accountable.
Only about 13 percent of registered voters went to the polls May 6 to choose a mayor and council - or about 8,300 residents.
Councilwoman Pat Van Houte, an Isbell critic who lost her bid for mayor, said the city's many boards are mostly staffed by people Isbell knows.
"I think a lot of people don't get involved because they don't see the opportunity to get involved," she said.
Others try and get the runaround, she said.
"Then the next time, they don't bother."
Mease's tax and fine collections contract remains largely beyond City Council oversight and therefore unaccountable to taxpayers.
The city has paid him more than $4.4 million under the contract he has held since the 1990s, according to payments recorded in the check register.
But it's unclear where that money is actually going.
When Mease's contract came up for renewal in December, several council members raised questions about his relationship with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a national collections firm. Though cities are prohibited from putting professional services contracts up for competitive bids - the idea being that you don't necessarily want to hire the cheapest tax collector or consultant - they can shop around. Several council members wondered why the city hadn't compared Mease's performance with other firms, at least since 2004.
They also didn't understand why Mease had the contract, when he seemed to be farming much of the work out to Linebarger.
The Chronicle later found that Mease had actually declared Linebarger as his employer on a financial disclosure that he filed with the Port of Houston Authority in 2016. Isbell appointed him to that position.
In an interview, Mease described Linebarger as his partner, though the firm was not named in the contract and it explicitly forbade subcontracting. He said his role in Pasadena involves trying to coax delinquent taxpayers into payment plans.
He called the concerns overblown because the money he makes comes from fees paid by the delinquent tax and fine payers. Those fees are capped at 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, under state law. Linebarger's involvement doesn't change the fee amount, he said, so the city is getting "two people for the price of one."
Asked whether he could provide records the Chronicle sought, Mease said he doesn't keep records related to the contract - Linebarger does. Linebarger spokesman Joe Householder referred all questions back to City Hall.
More than seven weeks after the Chronicle requested details about the Mease contract, City Secretary Linda Rorick referred some of the request to another department and to Harris County, which collects some taxes for the city. She said work was progressing on producing other documents.
Isbell has responded to criticism in council meetings by declaring that Mease has always done a good job.
Councilman Sammy Casados has said he hopes the council will have the votes to re-evaluate the Mease contract after Isbell leaves office in July.
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