Officials plan to release emergency document

Marina Riker By Marina Riker

Dec. 19, 2017 at 9:36 p.m.
Updated Dec. 20, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Victoria officials are expected to release the city and county's emergency plan, a document they formerly said should be kept from the public.

The Victoria Advocate recently reported that city, county and Department of Public Safety officials denied public records requests seeking a copy of Victoria's emergency plan, which outlines how local officials are supposed to respond to disasters ranging from terrorist attacks to hurricanes.

But since then, the city and county have changed their position.

County Judge Ben Zeller said Tuesday the plan would be released sometime in early 2018 after officials redact sensitive security information.

"The reason that it hasn't been up until now is that no one has asked for it," said Zeller.

When asked for a copy of the plan this fall, both the city and county officials said in emails that they wouldn't release any portion of the plan to the public. They cited a 2013 opinion by the state's Office of the Attorney General, which said the entire plan could be hidden because publishing any part of it could provide criminals with information needed to carry out acts of terrorism.

Neither the city nor county would release redacted versions. However, Zeller said Tuesday that officials never had an issue with releasing parts of the plan that didn't pose security risks.

"We've never had an issue with it being released," said Zeller. "But it would necessitate combing through and removing the parts that contain sensitive information."

Officials are now planning to spend the next months redacting confidential information such as officials' personal cellphone numbers and tactical plans for law enforcement.

The 4-inch-thick document details which local officials do what, when and how in the event chemicals spill in the city or a hurricane like Harvey barrels toward the coast.

"It's very important for folks to know that this plan is not written for (or) designed for the public to educate the public on specific issues," Zeller said.

Mayor Paul Polasek also said Tuesday he was supportive of releasing the plan to the public. Officials are also planning to review and update parts of the document, an effort that will be partly overseen by councilmembers Jan Scott and Jeff Bauknight, he said.

"Anytime after a situation, like with the hurricane, is a good time to go back and make improvements and changes," Polasek said.

While some counties across Texas choose to keep their plans secret, others in the state discuss plans openly with elected officials and post the plans online for the public to review.

In Victoria, some citizens think discussing plans publicly can ensure they're more effective. John Crews, a local real estate agent who serves on the Victoria Local Emergency Planning Committee, said he brought up the issue at a meeting for business and government officials Tuesday.

"There is a debate on what should and should not be confidential," said Crews. "And I think you can apply common sense to that."

The plan might contain some information that shouldn't be put in the hands of criminals or terrorists, Crews said. But the public should know about the rest of the plan so they can keep themselves safe during emergencies, he said.

"The rest of the stuff needs to be made public because we need to know what to expect from the city and the county," Crews said.



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