All we wanted to know was whether anyone in Houston had ever been fined up to $500 for feeding homeless people. It's possible, thanks to a 2012 city ordinance requiring Good Samaritans to first obtain a permit before being compassionate—an ordinance that, as we previously reported, has made some volunteers stop providing meals out of fear of being fined.
But apparently this was not a simple request. The City of Houston Municipal Courts Department, which said our question could only be answered with an official public records request, had forewarned us there were going to be some hoops. According to the invoice the city sent us, it was going to take two employees in the IT department two hours of "computer programming" to pull the information needed to answer our question. It would also cost us $95.
So we paid, they programmed—and then the department got back to us with a very confusing response: puppies.
Yes, the single citation apparently issued under the “Charitable Feeding Ordinance” since 2012 belonged to a man ticketed in a strip mall parking lot for selling puppies with his friend. (A municipal courts spokeswoman first told us that "maybe he was doing it near where food was being sold"; assistant city attorney Randy Zamora finally confirmed that the only likely explanation was that there must have been a filing mistake.)
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While we are happy to report that no one, according to city records, has been ticketed for feeding poor people, we still have some concerns. Mainly: Why this much money and effort to obtain basic information about how the city is governing its citizens? Are we to assume that every time a council member or city staffer or our neighbor Bob wants an answer to a basic question (like, how often are some city ordinances enforced?), city IT folks will be tied up for two hours of "programming?" In any case, $100 fees for basic public information seems to run against the grain of government transparency.
And this isn't the first time we've had to pay a big fee for a little information. In May, we requested to see how many drivers had violated the city's safe passing ordinance, passed in 2012 in effort to keep cyclists safe amid dangerous, sometimes deadly, hit-and-run accidents. For ten sheets of paper, we paid over $100—again, that two-hour “programming time.”
Other agencies don't appear to have these hurdles. In October, we asked the Harris County Attorney's Office to fulfill a much more complicated request: In a story about officers denying the county's marijuana leniency program, First Chance Intervention, to eligible offenders, we requested to see every single hard-copy form on file since October 2014 in which officers chose to do that. Whatever computer software or human labor the attorney's office was using, they didn't charge us for it.
The issue isn't necessarily how much we, the Houston Press, have to pay (newsrooms are used to the growing cost of public information, an expense journalists have come to expect). But what about the rest of the public, those who might not be able to shell out 95 bucks for a single report that's not even what they asked for?