City Council Using Open Records Requests To See What Members Are Saying About Them Behind Their Backs

from the all-hail-the-new-transparency dept

El Paso’s (TX) government keeps screwing around with local public records laws… and for some truly unexpected reasons.

First, the normal stuff. A city council member seems to be toying with the idea of limiting public access to records, starting out with those many members the public might agree shouldn’t be allowed to do much of anything.

The El Paso City Council stepped back from a hot and slick slope Tuesday afternoon, killing a proposal to deny open records to people with a felony or a single kind of misdemeanor conviction.

Most convicts already have diminished rights, depending on their convictions. Denying open records to ex-cons or those in prison denies them access to justice. It doesn’t happen often, but prisoners have been able to have their cases reheard by uncovering prosecutorial misconduct through FOIA requests. And let’s not forget that a man imprisoned for tax fraud blew the lid off law enforcement’s use of Stingray devices while still behind bars, thanks to incessant FOIA requests.

The step back from the slope was one of pure capitulation: council member Emma Acosta never tabled the motion. Apparently she was well-aware the discriminatory suggestion wouldn’t survive a challenge. She instead proposed that telephone numbers of city employees should be redacted and her “no criminals allowed” suggestion was removed from the agenda.

As points out, this new public records activity follows an outside investigation into the city’s withholding of documents requested by the El Paso Times.

An outside investigator found it “problematic” that the city’s public information officer determined which documents should have been released to the El Paso Times under an open records request the newspaper filed last year.

The public information officer, Juli Lozano, withheld two documents that other city officials had said were responsive to a Times request for records related to projects that were requested by City Council members, according to a report from Austin attorney Ross Fischer that was made public Wednesday.

But the best action of all occurred late last fall. Acosta, who proposed the questionable ban on convicted criminals requesting public records, managed to pass a measure that forces any public official making public records request to publicly disclose what was requested and how much it cost for the city to fulfill. This only sounds like a step towards greater accountability.

While Acosta insisted her measure was designed to increase transparency, opponents said it was designed to inhibit city officials from doing records checks on one another in a toxic climate of internal politics.

The internal toxicity surfaced last month with council members calling one another liars and making records requests to read the text messages between rival council members.

This was solved in the most self-serving fashion, which, coincidentally, also worked out best for the public.

The council decided, unanimously, to solve the problem by prohibiting the mayor and one another from using all electronic devices, including cell phones, during council meetings.

Now, if only they would agree to stop using them at all to conduct official business. The use of personal devices and accounts to keep records from the public is a government favorite. It doesn’t always work, but it does make searching for records more difficult and almost always ensures a lawsuit (or an investigation) will be part of the extremely-protracted request fulfillment.

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