Interviews with the eight candidates to become the next city manager of Missouri City were set to begin Monday.
City leaders are seeking to withhold information about the applicants from the public, arguing the council could not properly consider candidates if residents knew their names and backgrounds. The Fort Bend Star requested the candidates’ names from Missouri City officials, who have so far denied the request.
In interviews with the Star, city council members said staff were following legal requirements, but that the council may involve the public later.
“City is following the legal requirements for requests for records and, if there is such a plan, that the council may involve the public once the council has narrowed down the field,” Mayor Robin Elackatt wrote.
After officials refused to release the names of city manager candidates, the Star filed an open records request on Oct. 19, seeking to obtain those names - something that typically falls under public information. Missouri City is in the midst of searching for its third city manager in two years, having paid out almost $1 million in severance payments to its last two ousted city managers.
An expert in Texas public records laws argued the city’s efforts are atypical, given that city manager searches have traditionally fallen under the purview of the public, and that Missouri City is relying on an exception that stretches believability.
“Even as broadly as the exception has been applied, this is a new low,” said Joseph R. Larsen, a Houston attorney and a member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas’ board of directors.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office in the 1990s began providing an exception to public information requests when entities are going through a deliberative process, Larsen said. At the time, the University of Houston had hired a consultant who was working with the school on diversity issues, and the idea was that policymakers wanted an opportunity to speak frankly without fear of it becoming public.
“That was the idea behind it,” Larsen said. “I never liked the exception. But it’s even worse that the AG allows it to be used so broadly.”
Representatives for the Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request for comment about the matter by Monday afternoon.
In the case of Missouri City, attorneys for the city argue that because the list of eight candidates was prepared by a search firm, it constitutes an opinion and thus falls under the exception.
“This would further frustrate the deliberative process that the asserted privilege seeks to protect, as such disclosure would subject the city council to pressure from the candidates or those acting on their behalf jockeying for the council’s favor, or produce a chilling effect on future deliberation and discussion, knowing such information would be made public,” Assistant City Attorney James Santangelo wrote in the city’s appeal of the Star’s open records request to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
The Star requested only a list of names for the eight candidates, who were referenced as a group at a recent city council meeting. Larsen said it doesn’t seem like the exception should apply in this instance.
The Star asked for a list of candidates on Oct. 19 and received notice Oct. 21 that the city received the request for a list and would respond shortly. Then, on Nov. 2, less than one week before the council was set to begin interviewing candidates, the city filed an appeal with the Attorney General’s Office.
Reaction among two council members to the news that the city is seeking to withhold the information was mixed.
Council member Lynn Clouser told the Star she’d asked city officials about bringing in the public once the council narrows the search down to a list of two candidates, she said.
“Resident input is important,” she said.
When asked about releasing the list of eight candidates, Clouser referred questions to the city secretary’s office.
Council member Jeffrey Boney, meanwhile, said he thought the public deserved a role in deciding the next city manager.
“Of course, the citizens of Missouri City should definitely have a say,” he said. “That’s something our consultant was made aware of. We definitely want to make sure we get the feedback from citizens. That’s part of the process.”
It’s not yet clear when council members hope to have a new full-time city manager in place. The original timeline had the council choosing someone before the end of this week, Clouser said. But given the council only started interviewing candidates on Monday, that timeline has been pushed back.
“I want to make a decision as soon as we can comfortably find a qualified candidate,” she said. “I’m not in a rush to pick someone. We’re going to interview the eight, see what we have, and go from there.”
Clouser wasn’t sure if the council would make a selection out of the eight finalists, she said. She wouldn’t know her feelings until sitting through interviews and going through their resumes and backgrounds, she said.
“Considering the number of people who’ve had that seat over the last four years, it’s imperative we get the right person this time,” she said.
The city manager spot in Missouri City in recent years has been a revolving door. Council members have been searching for a new full-time city manager since opting to fire Odis Jones in a 5-2 vote at an April meeting. The move came a little more than a year after the council ousted Anthony Snipes from the position in February 2020 in a 4-3 vote.
The city has given out nearly $1 million in severance payments to those two ousted city managers.
Previously, Missouri City also used the deliberative exception to hide the list of names in a previous city manager search, in 2015, Larsen said.
“The city, I think, is clearly withholding public information here,” Larsen said. “But the AG lets them do it.”
The Texas Attorney General is supposed to represent the people’s interests, but over the years, state leaders have slowly whittled down the list of what falls under the public purview, Larsen said.
The trend comes as most media entities have lost revenues and no longer have the ability to challenge Attorney General decisions in court that they once did, Larsen said.
“Nothing is going to change until this becomes a political issue,” Larsen said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Special interest groups, in contrast, are rife with money and a keen interest in keeping information from the public, Larsen said. And the government of Texas, both on a state and municipal level, are spending residents’ tax money to keep information from them, Larsen said.