Every year about this time, we sit down with a nice bottle of wine and read through the City of Grapevine annual budget document. This is a lot of fun (please note the heavy sarcasm that likely does not come across in black and white). You may wonder why we do this. The simple answer is that there is actually a lot of information there and well, no one else is going to read through it.
For an example of something you might learn by reading the city budget, did you know that Grapevine has the fourth largest Convention and Visitors Bureau in Texas? We do not have the full rankings, but for fun we will name five cities in Texas: Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. According to the city budget, Grapevine has a larger Convention and Visitors Bureau than two of those five cities.
Parts of the budget make a lot of sense and others are a lot less easy to navigate. One item that catches our eye every year is the festival operations section. If we were auditors (which we are not) and were in the business of looking for fraud or malfeasance, the first and most obvious place to look are the huge festivals that Grapevine puts on each year, Grapefest and Main Street Days. These are cash intensive operations and the information in the City Budget around the festivals is basically a black hole.
In the city budget, revenue is separated for Train Operations and Festivals, but combines the two for expenditures. That makes it impossible to figure out the profitability of each operation and thus the black hole.
So as an interesting test, we filed our very first Open Records Act with the city. The Open Records Act / Texas Public Information Act is a law in the state of the Texas that is intended to help prevent fraud in state and local government. It allows normal citizens like us to ask for any city document for review. Here is a better explanation that we took from the Texas State University website:
Texas Government Code, Chapter 552, gives you the right to access government records; and an officer for public information and the officer’s agent may not ask why you want them. All government information is presumed to be available to the public. Certain exceptions may apply to the disclosure of the information. Governmental bodies shall promptly release requested information that is not confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision, or information for which an exception to disclosure has not been sought.
Given that the city festivals Grapefest and Main Street Days are financial black holes, we thought we might ask how much money the city earns and spends on these events. We emailed our request to the city secretary:
Public Information Act / Open Records Act Request 10/19/12
Dear Ms. Brown,
I have never requested information using the public information act before, so if I have directed this request to the wrong person please let me know.
I was hoping you could forward me either by mail or by email some of the financial details around Grapefest and Main Street Days. Specifically, I would like to see financial statements (preferably income statements also called profit and loss statements) from 2010, 2011, 2012 for both Grapefest and Main Street Days. What I’d like to see in general is revenue by line item (gate, vendor booths, etc.) and also expenses by line item (music, police, etc.) and the resulting profit.
Also if these statements are audited, could you forward me the name and contact information of the auditor?
Thanks for your help with this. I do appreciate it.
Grapevine Texas Online
We then received an email back from the city secretary explaining that a representative of the city would contact us in regard to the request.
Today, we received the following letter from the attorney for the City of Grapevine:
October 30, 2012
Attorney General Greg Abbott
Open Records Division
P.O. Box 12548
Austin, Texas 78711-2548
Re: Request from Joe Thomas
ID# ____________ – City of Grapevine
Dear Attorney General Abbott,
The City of Grapevine, Texas, received and open records request from Mr. Joe Thomas dated October 19, 2012, and received by the City on that same day. The City mailed the request along with a letter dated October 29, 2012 to the Attorney General requesting a ruling, as provided for by Section 552.301 of the Act. This letter serves as a supplement to the previous letter mailed October 29th and is being placed in the U.S. mail on today’s date, October 30, 2012.
As noted in the October 29 letter, the City is not disclosing the requested documents because the City believes they are excepted from disclosure under Sections 552.101, 552.111, 552.116 of the Act. In addition to those sections previously raised, the City believes the requested documents are excepted from disclosure under Section 552.131.
This letter serves to comply with the requirements of Section 552.301(a-d). A complete submission as required under Section 552.301(e) is forthcoming. Thank you for your consideration.
Boyle & Lowry, L.L.P.
Matthew L. Butler
Assistant City Attorney
To summarize it as simply as we can, the city does not want to provide any detail around the revenues, expenses, and profit of Main Street Days and Grapefest. And with that the two events will continue to be financial black holes.
It feels like every year we have to comment on the lack of transparency and accountability in our city government. This will be exhibit A the next time local elections roll around when incumbents claim that the city is already very transparent.
And even this Tuesday, as the city asks for another $70 million in bonds for two separate projects, we wonder how much transparency will there be once the projects start? I think we already know the answer without getting another letter from the city attorney.