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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

County records access shut off by AG’s ruling

Title searches and other records checks by private individuals at the Reeves County Clerk’s office ground to a halt on Monday, after County Clerk Dianne Florez said that she had received a notice from the Texas Attorney General’s office that some records were off-limits to the public.

Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled on Thursday that county and district clerks across Texas cannot make records that contain Social Security numbers available to the general public. The ruling was made in response to a request for an opinion out of Fort Bend County, where the county clerk’s office began making all of its records available on the Internet four years ago.

"Indeed, it is universally agreed that Social Security numbers (SSN) are at the heart of identity theft and fraud," Abbott said in announcing his decision, "and in today's Internet world where information - including public government information - can be instantly and anonymously obtained by anyone with access to the worldwide web, the danger is even greater."

The Attorney General’s decision (GA-0519) said the confidentiality of the Social Security numbers for all living persons is confidential and applies to all records in the county clerk’s office that are subject to the Public Information Act (PIA) .

The concern was focused on probate documents that contain Social Security and other numbers, such as check and savings account routing numbers that could be used by identity theft criminals.

However, at the same time, clerks were told the Public Information Act does not authorize clerks to redact Social Security numbers from original documents maintained in the clerk’s records. Clerks can certify records from which the SSN has been redacted, but the certification must reflect the SSN’s have been redacted for release of copies or for posting on the Internet.

The effect of the ruling is to shut down records checks in the clerks’ offices. In Reeves County, that means a suspension of title searches by oil and gas company representatives, who have been regular visitors for the past three years, due to the sharp increases in energy costs.

“This would include land records, because those land records have social security numbers,” said Florez. The land records are sought in efforts to secure new drilling rights in Reeves County, where a major new gas field was just designated last year by the Texas Railroad Commission.

Florez said that this would definitely hurt her office and that she wanted to discuss the matter with County Attorney Alva Alvarez.

Clerk’s offices in neighboring Ward and Winkler counties also have suspended records searches as a result of the ruling.

“This is affecting the whole state, not just Reeves County,” said Florez.

She said that they wanted to come up with a solution that would help the public, but still be in compliance.

“I know for sure that death and birth records have been closed to the public,” said Florez. The letter handed out by the attorney general stated: “We are aware that this opinion will create a number of complex logistical and fiscal issues. The Texas Association of Counties is discussing these issues with a number of parties, but any solution will not be immediate. In the interim, we advise you to consult with your county attorney and obtain a written opinion advising you to process requests for inspection or copying under the Act.

“Until you can get such an opinion, you should proceed with extreme caution. In light of the criminal penalties for disclosing confidential information, it would appear to be unwise to allow the public assess to any information until you establish that the information requested does not contain a social security number. We realize that most of you have limited resources, and that the Attorney General’s ruling will have the effect of hampering access to public information, at least until a variety of legal, financial and logistical issues can be resolved.”

Rodriguez details health care, ed concerns in first local visit

Health care and education were the main topics for discussion for Ciro Rodriguez, the new congressman for Reeves County who made his first visit to the area on Friday.

Rodriguez made a swing through the Trans-Pecos region of the 23rd District, which he’s represented since January, after the San Antonio Democrat won a December special election over Henry Bonilla. The win came after Rodriguez had been defeated earlier in 2006 in an attempt to regain his 28th District seat from Henry Cuellar, and after placing second in a November open election to Bonilla, which was ordered when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the 23rd District’s boundaries as drawn up in 2003 violated the Voting Rights Act.

Rodriguez spent about 45 minutes talking with local residents at the West of the Pecos Museum on Friday, and cited his work to improve education in Texas while a member of the Texas Legislature, which included a rule qualifying the top 10 percent of each high school class for state universities and allowing high school students to earn early college course credits.

“These last six weeks we’ve been working real hard,” Rodriguez said, citing funding added to programs since January by the House Democrats since regaining control of Congress for the first time in 12 years.

“We tried to work hard to stay within the budget,” he said, while citing additions of $3.6 billion for veterans, and $100 million for Head Start and $200 million for special education programs.

He said another $260 million was appropriated for rural heath care funding, and said overall health care funding in Texas is one of the state’s major problems.

“The present (federal) budget would cut about $300 million from Medicare and Medicaid, which is devastating,” he said, noting that a shortage of federal funds hurts poorer border counties like those in the 23rd District even more due to the number of indigent patients.

“Each county is responsible for indigent care and the counties all know it,” he said, adding that Texas also fails to match federal funds available for health care costs.

“We have the best health care system in the world, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing I we don’t have accessibility to it, or if it’s not affordable,” said Rodriguez, who voiced his support for a government-run universal heath care system.

He also wants to increase the number of medical and pharmaceutical schools in the U.S., noting that tighter immigration controls after September 11 has cut into the number of foreign skilled workers who can get into the country.

“We’re not producing the doctors we need. We’re not producing the engineers we need,” he said. “There’s a shortage of medical schools and pharmacy schools in Texas. What that does is we have qualified Americans who want to go to medical school, but we don’t have room.”

“My goal is to try and make things happen with education and Medicaid,” Rodriguez said. “I also want to increase funding for transportation. We’re hurting the next generation by handing them infrastructure that’s falling apart.”

He was first elected to Congress a decade ago and served until 2004, when he was defeated by Cuellar. Rodriguez said his return to Congress has put him back on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, while moving from Armed Service to the Appropriations Committee this time around.

He said the Homeland Security subcommittee for appropriations already has held eight hearings, due to a longer work week instituted by new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and they group also took a trip to New Orleans to look at how rebuilding efforts are going 17 months after Hurricane Katrina.

Rodriguez said he has already set up area offices in Del Rio, Clint and Fort Stockton. He said as of now there are no plans to put one in Pecos, but added, “If we get offered an office here, we might put one, too.” He also said he plans to make another trip to Pecos sometime this spring.

“My goal is to finish up the district by the end of March and then to start the cycle all over again,” he said. “You’ll see me a minimum of four times a year.”

Uresti announces plan for local Senate office

New State Senator Carlos Uresti, talked about his work in the Texas Legislature to local residents Thursday night, as guest speaker for the Annual Chamber of Commerce Banquet. Uresti, who defeated incumbent Frank Madla last March to win the 19th District Democratic nomination before winning election in November, also said that the plans to have an office in Pecos sometime this summer.

“I think it’s the first time. No one can recall a Senate office being here,” Uresti said, adding that he hoped an office could be set up inside the Reeves County Courthouse. He said he was also looking at having a ‘Reeves County Day’ at the Texas Legislature. “Your officials can come to Austin and meet with the Speaker, the Lieutenant Governor and the Governor,” he said. “They would get to take to legislators about issues which are important to Reeves County.”

Uresti told the group that he planned to work hard for certain issues that he truly cared about.

“The main issues that are very pertinent are education, health care and economic development,” said Uresti.

Uresti said that education would help improve the quality of life and that we must work hard to break the chain of poverty.

“We have excellent public schools,” said Uresti.

Uresti said that we must also care more for our veterans, work on economic development and provide more health care for everyone.

Uresti said that this past year there were 200,000 children who fell off of the CHIPS program, which meant $950 million that went back to the state.

“One of the exciting things happening right now is the oil boom, we haven’t seen this since the 1980s,” said Uresti. “Health care is a critical issue, there are too many Americans without any kind of health insurance.”

“You are all a part of this community and should work together to make it better, so that you’re children can get the right education and hopefully come back,” said Uresti.

Uresti, who was named to the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Coastal Resources, later said he has been talking to county judges in rural sections of the 19th District about their main concerns, which include funding for infrastructure and items like medical cost reimbursement for indigent care.

“What we’ve seen lately in the Texas Legislature is folks are taking the concerns of rural counties more seriously,” he said. “We’ve got to take a bigger vision and think outside the box.”

Uresti concluded his speech by saying that a young man who graduated from Harvard, Jonathan Fuentes is currently working on getting his PhD and working in the senator’s Austin office.

“This young man came from Pecos and he helped me prepare this speech, you should be very proud of him,” said Uresti.

Chamber names McKinney as Citizen of the Year

A lifelong Pecos citizen who is involved in many aspects in the community including the West of the Pecos Rodeo, was named Citizen of the Year last Thursday, during the Annual Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet.

Brenda McKinney received her award to a standing ovation and said she was shocked at receiving the award and thanked the crowd.

“This is just a surprise, I really didn’t expect this,” said McKinney.

Several awards were handed out Thursday evening, including Citizen of the Year; Ruiz Profile of Courage; Educator the Year; Law Enforcement Officer of the Year; Correctional Officer of the Year; Communications Officer of the Year; EMT and Firefighter of the Year. “After reviewing the list of past award winners for Citizen of the Year, one Pecosite was surprised by the fact that this nominee had never won that award or man others for that matter,” said presenter of the award Debbie Thomas.

“The quote was ‘like the prettiest girl in school never getting asked to the prom because everyone thinks someone else will do the asking,’” she said.

“This citizen gives the most of her time in Pecos and Reeves County, never asking for, or expecting anything in return,” said Thomas. “Quietly and efficiently, this nominee contributes to almost every event, community service group and other activities designed to improve the public’s welfare,” she said.

Thomas said that she serves our community with honesty and integrity and earns respect through hard work and devotion to the cause. “We can’t list all the service given to each of these committees and organizations, but each of you have probably been involved in some way with her contributions and have recognized her dedication,” said Thomas.

Just a few of the many places where each of us have seen this nominee hard at work and serving may offices include: Pecos Chamber of Commerce, Women’s Division, Reeves County Livestock, elections, Catholic Daughters, Citizens Police Academy Alumni Association, Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame, Reeves County Hospital Board and for over 20 years, West of the Pecos Rodeo.

Two individuals were recipients of the Ruiz Profile of Courage/Hidden Hero Award.

“While a nomination of two individuals for one award is out of the ordinary, these two individuals are virtually inseparable, not only in daily life, but also in community services, said Emily Fernandes, last year’s winner, who had the honor of presenting Hugh and Gail Box with the award.

“This couple is a perfect reflection of ‘quietly giving of their time and resources without demand for or expectation of any recognition,’” said Fernandes. “They truly are ‘hidden heroes.’”

“Whether it is a chamber event, West of the Pecos Rodeo, Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame, church event, golf association (and they don’t even play), or any other organization event, you can always find the Boxes there, working,” said Fernandes. “Not just there talking and being ‘seen’ - but behind the scenes, working their tails off,” she said.

“Find someone else that owns thousands of dollars in cooking trailers, equipment, coolers and other gear simply to go and provide the hospitality for church and community events,” she said.

Fernandes said that the couple consistently gives of themselves and their resources, often going unnoticed and never, never expect anything in return, except a quiet thank you.

Lujan named to Dean’s List at TCU

Betsy Ann Lujan of Pecos was recently named to the Dean’s List for the 2006 Fall Semester at Texas Christian University.

Lujan is a junior Early Childhood Major. To be eligible for the Dean’s List, junior students must achieve at least a 3.6 G.P.A.

Lujan is the daughter of Irene Lujan of Pecos and Tony Lujan of Odessa.

Grandparents are Jose and Mary Lou Garcia of Barstow and Elva Lujan of Pecos.

Local students make President’s List at UTPB

UT Permian Basin student’s Joseph Jaquez and Edward Vasquez both of Pecos, have made the President’s Honor Roll for the Fall Semester of 2006.

Relay for Life event set Thursday

A Relay for Life Survivor Rally will be held from 6:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 1, at the First United Methodist Church, 301 S. Elm.

The balloon ceremony will be at 6:45 p.m.

If any individual is a cancer survivor or currently has cancer please com. This is a good time to register as a survivor and also let the committee know your T-shirt size for the Relay for Life Event scheduled for April 27-28.

The survivors will also be informed of what has been planned for the April event.

If you cannot make the survivor rally or need more information call Raymond or Karen Hornberger at 432-940-9170.


Anna L. Elam

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