Does Mayor Turner Have a Transparency Problem?

Not long after his swearing in earlier this year, Mayor Sylvester Turner assembled a “transition team” comprised of more than 250 local academics, business leaders, politicians and everyday citizens to study nearly every corner of city government and report back their policy recommendations. The mayor called the effort “unprecedented” in scope and inclusiveness, saying the team's “advice and counsel will be invaluable as we move Houston forward toward that better tomorrow I promised in my inaugural address.”

Invaluable and kinda secret, turns out.

Soon after City Hall sent out a 17-page “Transition Team Report” last week, we started to hear grumblings that the report left out some important recommendations and information that had been submitted to Turner's office. When the Houston Press contacted Turner's office for a basic explanation of some of the recommendations that did manage to make it into the mayor's report (for instance, what exactly does it mean to “Improve the transparency of the citizen complaint process” for the Houston Police Department?), Turner spokeswoman Janice Evans said she couldn't help us because “The transition team process was conducted entirely outside of city government.” Evans also told us transition team members “do not do media interviews.”

At least not on the record they don't. Several transition team members wouldn't talk about the process publicly for fear of getting on the new-ish mayor's bad side. None would send us the individual transition team reports that were submitted to the mayor's office – reports that supposedly discuss in detail some of the most pressing issues facing the city, from budgeting and finances to public safety and police accountability.

“We were under the impression that these would be public documents,” one transition team member told us. It was only in recent weeks, the team member said, that officials in charge of the process “started saying these documents are to be kept quiet.”

It's unclear why. Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, sat on Turner's transition committee focused on criminal justice policy and was one of the only members of the mayor's transition team willing to speak with the Press on the record. Kase says the report sent out by Turner's office last week adequately reflects some of what her group recommended. Still, seems there's quite a bit missing.

For instance, Kase says, the group recommended that Turner's office evaluate the super-secret technology HPD uses to trick a suspect's cell phone into sharing its location and other metadata (HPD uses the so-called “Stingray” technology without the full knowledge of prosecutors or even a judge). Kase says her group's report also asked Turner's office to study whether Houston Forensic Science Center should remain an independent lab – something the mayor himself has brought up for discussion in recent weeks. (*See update below.)

It appears those reports also contain information that could help the public better understand how city government currently works. For instance, Kase says a section on Houston's municipal courts dug up these remarkable numbers: Out of nearly 170,000 municipal court convictions in 2014, fewer than 3,000 people were offered community service instead of a fine. Only six times were fines waived because someone was too poor to pay up.

None of that is in the “Transition Team Report” Turner's office sent out last week. Which is kind of confusing to people like Kase. “I guess I just thought it was a public process,” she told us. “I mean, we met at City Hall. I think it was even in the mayor's conference room. … I just assumed that the end result was going to be a public report.”

Last week when we asked for those reports, Turner's office instead filed an appeal with the state Attorney General's office seeking to block their release. When we asked why they shouldn't be public, Turner spokeswoman Evans told us that transition team members simply “are not desirous of being in the media.” She also offered this prepared statement from Turner (who evidently speaks in the third person):

"These are just everyday citizens of Houston who wanted to give of their time. They engaged in frank discourse and brought a variety of different viewpoints to the table in reaching their conclusions. Things were added. Things were taken out. This group of volunteers from all walks of life did not expect that the intricate details of those discussions would be aired in the news media. The report issued by the mayor [Thursday] reflects the final results of their work."
So, got a question about what Mayor Turner's transition team came up with? Don't ask the mayor, since all of that was done “entirely outside of city government.” Don't ask a transition team member, either, since they're “not desirous of being in the media” and “do not do media interviews.” Why? Seems only the mayor's office can answer that one. 

*Update 4:15 p.m.: It appears the recommendations to Turner regarding the crime lab were more explicit. Today someone sent us the section of the report (again, which Turner's office is seeking to withhold from the public) dealing with the crime lab, which clearly argues against a merger:

Supporting the Houston Forensic Science Center’s Independence

The Houston Forensic Science Center is quickly moving to self-sustainability. Thus, there is no cost-saving reason for a merger. The HFSC has contracts with other law enforcement agencies to provide forensic services on a fee-for-service basis. The lab saved $1.6 million last year by building its own latent print work and not contracting it out. The lab also receives substantial revenue from grants and training that it provides to other law enforcement agencies and attorneys.

Merger of the HFSC with other labs would create significant problems and costs. While independent of law enforcement, the County lab is not as politically insulated as the HFSC, which answers to a community Board of Directors and not to a government body. The DPS lab is not independent of law enforcement. These three labs do not share the same corporate values, and any merger would not only wipe away the cultural gains made in the HFSC but would also likely create a major battle for leadership, huge merger expenses, disruption of work, and lower employee morale.

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas