Access to settlement agreements may be hard to obtain

Q: Our hospital district recently let a highly paid employee go. The employee got a sizable settlement and the local governmental body is refusing to release the terms. Aren’t local governmental bodies prohibited from entering into nondisclosure agreements?

A:  See the Texas Public Information Act, Government Code Sec. 552.022, titled Categories of Public Information, at: www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/GV/htm/GV.552.htm#552.022. 

Focus on paragraph (18), which says “a settlement agreement to which a governmental body is party.” Settlement agreements can be entered into, and apparently, you pretty much get to follow the public dollar. After all, taxpayers end up footing the bill for settlement agreements. 

But before we rest on that idealistic notion, see subparagraph (b) under (18). It says: “A court in this state may not order a governmental body or an officer for public information to withhold from public inspection any category of public information described by Subsection (a) or to not produce the category of public information for inspection or duplication, unless the category of information is confidential under this chapter or other law.” 

Well, now, you just read a rule-swallowing exception: “… unless the category of information is confidential under this chapter or other law.” Easy examples of “other law” would include the access-blocking attorney-client privilege and the Public Information Act exception for judicial information. 

Let’s surmise, however, that the governmental body’s attorney simply paid a visit to the courthouse, filed a petition for an order of nondisclosure and the petition was granted. That put the settlement agreement under wraps unless or until it becomes subject matter in a lawsuit addressed in an open court, or if the governmental body somehow becomes compelled to release the settlement information.

A court document indicating that an order of nondisclosure exists, however, would be public information. A reporter may go to the court clerk’s office, request a copy of the order of nondisclosure and perhaps write a news story that verifies that the order exists. To flesh out the story, the reporter may ask the governmental body’s officials and their attorney, as involved parties, to comment about the order of nondisclosure. Even if the only response each of those parties gives is “no comment” or the equivalent, such statements are reportable and likely of interest to readers. 

Note: In the 2015 regular session of the Texas Legislature, Texas Press Association supported House Bill 1630 by Rep. Ramon Romero Jr. of Fort Worth. Romero’s legislation would have made settlement agreements public information if in amounts equal to or greater than $30,000. Versions of the bill passed the House and Senate but the measure died along with hundreds of other unresolved bills as the 150-day session ended.

Q: Can you tell me where to look to determine the requirements for a school district to publish a Notice of Public Hearing and a Notice for Tax Ratification Election?

A:  See Tax Code Sec. 26.08, titled, Election to Ratify School Taxes. Paragraph (b) says the governing body shall order that the election be held in the school district on a date not less than 30 or more than 90 days after the day on which it adopted the tax rate.

The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts produces a Truth in Taxation publication that includes public notice guidelines of the aforementioned sort. See: comptroller.texas.gov/taxinfo/proptax/tnt/.

Q:  Long, long ago, Sen. John Tower of Wichita Falls spoke at a Texas Press Association convention about national security and I was there. I’d sure like to get my hands on that speech. Can you help?

A:  Tower, who was a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (but not yet chair), spoke at the Texas Press Association summer convention in Houston on June 20, 1980. The late senator’s three-page speech is available at The Portal to Texas History, an outstanding research tool created and maintained by the University of North Texas Libraries. It is one of 306 digital texts on file in the portal’s John G. Tower Senate Collection, 1961-1985. To find the document, open texashistory.unt.edu and enter these words in the search field: John Tower Texas Press Association. Scroll down to the third document. That’s the speech.

Q:  Our new city council is considering creating a municipal development district, an entity that appears to be virtually the same as an economic development corporation, which we already have. I found brownwoodbusiness.com/MDD, a resource explaining the difference between the two, but do you know of a state resource that can help me learn more? 

A: There once was a readily available “Economic Development Handbook” produced by the Office of the Texas Attorney General. The link to the handbook has been deactivated because the publication is “out of date and should not be relied upon,” according to a statement on the AG’s website.

Fortunately, the Texas Senate Research Center in October 2008 published a “Research Spotlight” tract titled, “Invisible Government: Special Purpose Districts in Texas.” See www.senate.state.tx.us/SRC/pdf/SL-SpPurposeDistricts.pdf. Scroll to page 33 to read the portion about municipal development districts. 

To find municipal development districts in statute, see Local Government Code Chapter 377, www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/LG/htm/LG.377.htm.