Texas county fights release of parts of $100K jail expansion study, other info

"The release of this information could allow an individual to anticipate weakness in the infrastructure of the Hidalgo County jail," attorneys said


By Mark Reagan
The Monitor

MCALLEN, Texas — Invoking "terrorism," among other arguments, civil attorneys with Hidalgo County are asking the Texas Attorney General whether they can shield from taxpayers a $100,000 jail expansion study and the appraisal reports for the Willacy County jail that the county entered into a $50-plus million, 50-year lease.

The Monitor filed the Texas Public Information Act requests to better understand Hidalgo County's costly and decades-long overcrowding problem, the recommendations to remedy it and to find out the condition of the Willacy County jail.

Hidalgo County released information it claims does not raise privacy or confidentiality concerns — a redacted executive summary of the $100,000 study — that revealed ERO Architects' recommendations for the expansion of the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center.

However, it did not release information on appraisal reports regarding the Willacy County jail.

In its letter to the AG regarding the feasibility study, the county civil attorneys said they believe the information The Monitor requested are deliberative process documents and are confidential under the Texas Public Information Act, Texas Government Code and other Texas AG decisions.

The first argument the county made is that the feasibility study contains extensive information related to the recommendations and opinions reflecting the county's decision-making process.

"These documents include factual information that are inextricably intertwined with material involving County officials' and representatives' advice, opinions, and recommendations regarding their decisional process related to actions the County is considering taking at the Hidalgo County jail. ... Additionally, the County has not made a final decision based on the final report at this time," the letter stated.

Both Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. "Eddie" Guerra and Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez spoke candidly with The Monitor about the study and their thoughts on the expansion and the Willacy County jail lease in a story published Sunday.

The county's second argument to the AG said Texas Government Code holds that the feasibility study is considered confidential because it identifies "the technical details of particular vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure to an act of terrorism."

[PREVIOUS: Decades elapsed, millions spent but Texas county jail overcrowding remains]

While there's merit in this argument, government attorneys also have the option to consult with reporters and ask whether they agree to redactions of such information. The civil attorneys made no such effort.

To bolster this argument, the civil attorneys said in the letter the study should not be released because it contains information about inmate classification, current and proposed housing pod types and distribution designs, intake and transport traffic flow layouts, jail administration and support plans and future utility information. It also contains aerial photos of the jail in its current form and the proposed expansion options.

"The County asserts that the release of this information would reveal technical and/or operational details or particular vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure of the Hidalgo County jail," the letter stated. "The release of this information could allow an individual to anticipate weakness in the infrastructure of the Hidalgo County jail."

The civil attorneys also claim that the sheriff's office has previously experienced several incidents involving security at the jail — without describing what those are — and claimed the "release of this information would provide critical operational detail to those who would try to do so."

They argue the release of the responsive information would allow "private citizens" to anticipate weaknesses, avoid detection, jeopardize officer safety and undermine police efforts.

The Monitor has discretion in what it publishes from open records requests, and county officials have even provided reporters tours of jail facilities, including those at the new courthouse.

"The release of this information would further provide criminal accessibility on how to anticipate weaknesses of the systems in place to detect criminal activity or avoid detection by officers working at the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center," the letter stated. "This may result in dangerous conditions at the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center and jeopardize people's safety."

As for the Willacy County jail appraisal reports, the civil attorneys made the same "terrorism" argument, but also claimed the information should be withheld because it relates to the location or price of a property.

The price of the lease is $57.53 million through 2046. The Monitor obtained this information through the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court agenda.

The letter to the AG notes that on July 26 the commissioners court authorized Cortez, the county judge, to enter into negotiations regarding the Willacy County jail and claims releasing the information could influence the "lease/purchase" price.

The county notified The Monitor of its arguments to the AG on Oct. 19, nearly 24 hours after commissioners court, with no public discussion, approved entering into the lease with Willacy County.

The ink dried on that lease on Nov. 4.

"The responsive information attached as Exhibit 'B' includes inspections of a property the County is interested in leasing and/or purchasing," the Oct. 19 letter stated. "However, negotiations are ongoing and a contract has not been awarded or signed as of the date of this request."

The Monitor requested the information in early October.

As for the Willacy County jail, Cortez previously told the newspaper that county officials are comfortable with the condition of the building, but it will not be able to open until it meets requirements set out by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

AG rulings typically take approximately three months.

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