Courtroom code names: Does Hays need to crack down on government transparency?

By Paige Lambert

For weeks, Projects Humpty Dumpty and Endurance sat on the executive session agenda of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Details of the projects were a mystery to the public, until the court approved and revealed them as economic developments in San Marcos.

While open government and transparency is paramount for those in the public eye, using pseudonyms for economic developments is a legal — and typical — act, according to Hays County attorney Mark Kennedy.

“Austin does more sometimes by putting contracts up for the public [to see], but the law doesn’t require that,” Kennedy said. “While it is still an offer, the contract can be kept out of the public stream.”

According to sections 551.070-551.090 of the Texas government code, government bodies may discuss only four topics during executive session: land acquisition, personnel matters, litigation and economic development negotiations.

He said Hays County has used pseudonyms before and a resident challenged the practice about a year ago. While the code doesn’t address pseudonyms per se, the attorney general’s office agreed with the county.

“We called the AG (Texas’ Attorney General) to confirm the practice,” he said. “While we didn’t get a written opinion, they confirmed it over the phone and that we were in step with other jurisdictions.”

Sections 551.0725 specifically states that county commissioners can discuss a business contract in a closed meeting if discussion in open meetings is considered to be detrimental to relations between the commissioners and the third party involved.

Government entities use pseudonyms and code words to keep a business contract or development out of the view of other jurisdictions, he said. 

“The county or city may be in competition with a jurisdiction to get the contract,” he said. “Disclosing details of the offer tends to reach other jurisdictions.”

Companies also at times ask governing bodies to use pseudonyms for their offers.

“It’s appropriate and necessary,” said Bill Howard, CEO of Texas Association of Businesses.

Chris Wallace, the association’s president, said disclosing an offer and potential deal could affect the business’ operations and employees.

“If you’ve got a business in the West Coast that is considering moving to Texas, the employees may leave,” Wallace said. “They don’t want any premature impacts.”

Code names for economic developments usually occur with big businesses or projects, he said.

Project Humpty Dumpty was for the revamping of Springtown Mall, while Project Endurance focused on a deal from Amazon to build in San Marcos.

If counties enter a nondisclosure agreement, any leaked identifying information could even present a legal issue, Kennedy said. 

While he couldn’t recall a company pulling out because of a similar leak, he has heard of it occurring in other states.

“It’s a very real possibility and risk,” he said. “It’s not like a city is trying to hide something, it just wants to protect a community.”

Kennedy said if there is ever an issue he would check with the AG. 

Who gets to choose the pseudonyms?

“Some names come from simple reasons, but sometimes it’s a mystery to me,” he said.

Comment on this Article

About Author

Comments are closed.