My old pal Ken Martin at The Austin Bulldog broke the story and has actually filed a lawsuit against the City - bully for him! - to stop what amounts to a conspiracy to violate the Public Information and Open Meetings Acts. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add a fact I didn't know when I mentioned Ken's work the other day - my wife is actually on the board of directors of The Austin Bulldog's 501c(3). We've only been together 20 years, you'd think I'd have known that! OTOH, I've known Ken even longer than that.)
Martin has been hammering away at the city for concealing emails, texts and other communications that should be subject to the Public Information Act, and hit a home run when he discovered references to a texting system called "Spark," on which council aides explicitly instruct one another how to disable the chat history so the records will be (illegally) deleted. Reports the Austin Statesman:
The city released hundreds of e-mails last week that were exchanged among council members. Council Member Mike Martinez, who turned over fewer than a dozen e-mails initially, disclosed hundreds more Wednesday.It's telling, I think, that it took an independent nonprofit news source like the Bulldog to break this story, when a phalanx of reporters truck in and out of City Hall every week from the MSM and we never heard word one about this. Indeed, the more frequent media reaction was to ridicule Austinites calling for openness as some sort of Jacobite horde who just irrationally hated the City Council, when in fact the folks, for example, who pushed Proposition One (myself included) were reacting to a growing veil of secrecy that Martin has now documented beyond any reasonable doubt. As I wrote after that initiative failed, that controversy "forced the local Austin print media, the Austin American Statesman and the Austin Chronicle, to choose sides: Are they insiders and power brokers, in which case they benefit from secrecy? Or are they journalists who benefit from public information? News flash: They're insiders." The Austin Bulldog shows the best journalists don't need insider connections, they just need for democratic protections like the Open Meetings and Public Information Act to function as they're supposed to. In Austin, under the current City Council, they do not.
The lawsuit alleges that not only did council members fail to give the Bulldog all the e-mails from their city e-mail accounts that fall under the records request, but that council members didn't turn over other messages about city business, such as text messages from mobile devices, e-mails from private accounts and instant messages sent on a city program called Spark.
In a July 2009 e-mail, an aide to Council Member Randi Shade encouraged the use of Spark, noting that all e-mails from city accounts are subject to open records requests, and: "In the heat of a Council meeting you may wish to communicate sensitive constituent information with your Council Member that would not be appropriate for all of us to enjoy in the Statesman the next day."
The aide, Glen Coleman , included a link from another staffer with instructions on how to delete previous Spark messages and disable the "chat history" function so future messages can't be saved.
Now the question falls to County Attorney David Escamilla: Will they?