Friday, March 04, 2011

Austin City Council flouts Open Meetings, Public Information Acts

The Austin City Council not only for years has been violating the Open Meetings Act through a "walking quorum" - with the Mayor meeting one-on-one or one-on-two before council meetings to deliberate instead of discussing city business publicly - it turns out they've got a secret texting system where they immediately delete conversations in order to intentionally subvert the Public Information Act. And they've used private email accounts for city business on the (flimsy) hope that they wouldn't be subject to public disclosure, as required by law.

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.

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.
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.

As I said the other day of the Austin Mayor's "walking quorum," the deletion of council communications is illegal, particularly if it's done intentionally to get around the Public Information Act. An increasing opacity at the Austin City Council has had a serious, negative impact on public discourse across an array of issues for the past decade. What's more, the people responsible know better but thought they were smarter than everybody else and could get away with it.

Now the question falls to County Attorney David Escamilla: Will they?


Anonymous said...

Go get 'em, Bulldog.
It's interesting the lengths to which some of these folks will go to cover up their misdeeds. Jesus says something about everything coming to light. "That which was done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops," or something like that.
Rev. Charles

not securely anchored said...

I think you mean flouts.

Anonymous said...

State Agencies do similar things with BlackBerrys. They use the PIN function to skirt open records requirements for communications and whatnot.

course some state agencies just outright ignore the email records retention like a certain environmental one...

Texpat said...


It's been awhile since LST closed down. This is very good stuff though.

Trashing the MSM, fighting the entrenched power structure, promoting the investigative and expository powers of the internet...

You old Austin hippies are beginning to sound like Tea Partiers.



Anonymous said...

Yes. You do mean "flouts" not "flaunts" - but we love you anyway.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks folks, for catching the usage error, which I fixed in the headline. I love blogging but I do frequently miss having an editor!

6:44, I'm sure you're right about Blackberries, etc.. There's probably a whole campaign to be done on this topic at both state and local government. Can you tell me more about the PIN function? I don't use one.

Texpat, thanks for the kind words. Since you think I'm a hippie and the hippies think I'm a reactionary racist, I'll leave the labels for others to affix. As far as I'm concerned, the values and political stances underlying this post transcend any such partisan foolishness. If you're an American, you want your government open and accountable. That's true if you're a longhair, a tea partier, or basically anybody who isn't rich enough to buy access.

I miss LST; that was a loss for the TX blogosphere.

Jeff Miller said...

City Council SHOULD be allowed to meet privately. These are ADULTS and we should treat them as such, not monitor everything they do and say to each other 24 hours a day. None of us would put with the open meetings law in out daily jobs and we shouldn't be hypocrites who expect our public officials to do differently. Of course, they are going to do some behind-the-scenes dealings that we (and I) don't agree with (all politicians do), but on the whole they are good people who put the interest of all austinites first.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jeff, whether they're "good people" or not is irrelevant. The question is whether they violated the Public Information and Open Meetings Acts, and it's quite clear they did. In the case of public records, when you look at the quote from Randi Shade's aide, it's pretty obvious that was an intentional effort to get around the law.

Tolerating that amounts to tolerating corruption. I will never accept "Trust us, we're the government" as an excuse for conducting official business behind closed doors, even from "good people." Public officials all over the state comply with those statutes and they can, too.

Texpat said...


You know I'm just pulling your leg.

I helped Eddie Wilson's crew get the building ready for the grand opening of Armadillo World Headquarters and was there opening night - all night - in 1970. My friends and I used to throw free concerts on a farm down on Onion Creek back then with Shiva's Head Band and Frieda and the Firedogs.

Heh, I got Austin street cred even if it is ancient.

Being the walking contradiction of conservative, libertarian and classically liberal beliefs that I am, labels are the last thing to which I seriously resort.

You're doing a great job here though. Just keep it up, Gritsy.

john said...

Once again leave it to "Grits" to bring us the new that burns our hide and breaks our hearts. "Representatives" and "your tax dollars at work"??!! (I wonder sometimes if the government got rid of hemp because it makes such good hanging rope?)

Anonymous said...

Grits, where is the evidence that the Open Meetings Act was violated, as you allege? I've read the emails and I don't see it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

2:47, the Mayor was operating a "walking quorum" using one-on-one and one-on-two meetings to deliberate privately instead of discussing issues publicly. See here. When it was reported, they had to stop and now have begun having public work sessions again instead.