City of Austin Balks at Homeless Camp Request

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City of Austin Balks at Homeless Camp Request

(Credit: KLBJ staff)

Since July 1, 2019, the issue of the homeless being allowed to camp virtually anywhere in the city has sparked a massive backlash.  It's something that has dominated discussions and remains one of the biggest issues the city faces.  For years, the Texas Department of Transportation was in charge of cleaning the city's many homeless camps, but recently handed over the reins to the City of Austin, which reluctantly agreed to take charge of cleaning up the mess.  But now, a recent request from an Austin citizen is calling into question just how transparent the city is truly willing to be when it comes to specifics of those camp cleanups.

On July 29, 2019, a public information request was submitted to the city which read: "Hello, I would like to request any records regarding the homeless camp cleanups in the Austin area, including the cost of each cleanup and the services that are being provided. I would also like to know the locations of the cleanups and the schedule for the cleanups for the future. I would like previous dates of cleanups and locations as well."  The city is required to issue a response within ten days, however, on the tenth day, the city responded only to inform the curious citizen that more time would be needed to gather the requested information.

Fast-forward to Monday, August 12.  Assistant City Attorney Zachary Brown penned a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking the authority to deny that public information request.  The reason: fears of terrorism. 

Citing section 552.101 of the Government Code, which allows for an exception to be granted for disclosure of information "considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision," Brown argued the city cannot release that information because it encompasses sections 418.176 through 418.182 of the Texas Homeland Security Act, which states:

"Those documents or portions of documents in the possession of governmental entity are confidential if they identify the technical details of particular vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure to an act of terrorism."

In his request to Paxtons office, Brown said the following:

"The information at issue describes several locations throughout Austin where public open spaces will be serviced by the City and cleaned in order to protect the public health and safety, as well as the security and economy of the City. See Id. § 421.001 (defining “critical infrastructure” to include “all public or private assets, systems, and functions vital to the security, governance, public health and safety, economy, or morale ofthe state or the nation”). Release of the requested information would hinder the efforts of the City to clean and maintain these public spaces, and providing members of the public information regarding when workers will be servicing these spaces reveals technical details of a particular vulnerability of these assets, namely the times that the spaces do not have workers present or are not under direct monitoring by the City."

The city did provide a few details, but offered no specifics of the current spending, scheduling, or manpower required to clean up the campsites.

KLBJ has reached out to the City of Austin for clarification but has not received a response.  There has also been no word on whether Attorney General Ken Paxton will accept or reject the city's request to deny that information to the citizen who requested it.

As of Tuesday morning, a petition on Change.org launched last month by Travis County Republican Party Chairman Matt Mackowiak has eclipsed 25,000 signatures.  It calls on the city council to rescind the homeless camping ordinance.  Mackowiak told KLBJ last week he hopes this will prompt the city council to reconsider the way it addresses homeless camping, adding that he's prepared to begin the process of crafting a legal petition as early as next month to be submitted to Austin's Office of the City Clerk.

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