By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
DID THE CHAIRWOMAN of the Walker County Hospital District violate state law when she asked another board member why his son, an attorney, wanted public information from the District?
Maybe. Maybe not.
The issue came up at last month’s regular meeting of the Board of Managers after a question was raised by Walker County News Today about the status of public information requests it had filed.
That led to a lengthy, sometimes rambling, discussion of open record requests.
In answering the WCNT question, Board Chair Anne Karr-Woodard said the District had complied with all public information requests and where it appeared it had not, it was because of errors by the Texas Attorney General’s office in its opinions.
She added “we just spent $20,000 responding to requests from Dr. Toronjo’s son.”
That would be Dr. David Toronjo, a board member. His son is an attorney.
Toronjo challenged why Woodard had mentioned his son and at one point Woodard asked “why does he want this information?”
“It is illegal for you to ask that,” Dr. Toronjo countered.
WCNT looked at the section of law that covers responses to requests. It is a violation of law for any agent or employee of the body being asked for information to ask why a requestor wants it. By extension if appears asking Dr. Toronjo why his son wanted the information could be a violation if Dr. Toronjo had joined his son in the request, which he said he had not.
The bottom line of state law is that any citizen has the right to ask for information from any entity covered under the law without being challenged. It is unclear whether a question to a second party outside of the formal request procedure would be a violation.
DURING THE DISCUSSION Toronjo was asked by an audience member if he knew why his son wanted the information, which was a permissable question under law since the audience member had no official status.
“I don’t know,” Toronjo said. “I don’t talk to him about his clients. It could be for a client. He has property in Walker County. It might involve that. I don’t know.”
Later that same audience member asked two board members – Dr. Curtis Montgomery and Judy Emmett – “how much time out of your busy day” was spent responding to Toronjo’s son’s request. Montgomery said “not much” while Emmett said “a day.” The audience member commented “what a waste.”
Toronjo said he felt for a long time a “veil of secrecy” has been draped over the WCHD when it comes to sharing information with the public. In particular when it comes to the WCHD and the Walker County Hospital Corporation (the contracted non-profit operator of Huntsville Memorial Hospital) he said “they don’t want freedom of information.”
Woodard said, as she has in the past, the District cannot release records of any kind if they involve the hospital corporation because it is a private corporation and not subject to public information laws. She said unless it agreed to the release, the district cannot make interactions public.
How far-reaching that provision is depends on Attorney General rulings and to date a specific request to the AG for a ruling on that relationship has not been made. The District appears to be acting on its own counsel’s reading.
Another publisher in Walker County said his request has not been honored. Wade Thibodeaux of the Walker County Press said he made a request last summer and still is waiting for the information. Woodard told him the state attorney general accidently lumped his request in with one from Walker County News Today. But, the AG does not respond to a request. It responds to requests for rulings and once a ruling is made, compliance is put back on the local agency.
Less than 24 hours after the meeting-night claim by Anne Woodard that the public information requests submitted months ago by both the Walker County Press and by Walker County News Today were still under review at the Attorney General’s office, WCNT received an email regarding that very issue.
The email, sent by attorney Melissa Mihalick of the law firm Bracewell LLC on behalf of the Hospital District, included a copy of the Attorney General’s response to the District’s continued efforts to keep the “90-day letter” to HMH out of public view.
Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or 936-293-0293.