The ongoing saga between the city and Stephanie Townsend Allala continues to cost the taxpayers of the community. As you all know the issue revolves around the city’s insistence that it has complied with the Texas Public Information laws by releasing all of the emails between city officials and Mountain Star officials in regards to the ballpark. Townsend Allala, on the other hand contends that the “city continues to resist the depositions of current and former” city officials and that the city has failed in retaining “all records concerning city business including personal emails and text messages on personal cell phones”. Steve Ortega, for his part has agreed that he holds, in his possession, city business related emails however he refuses to release them. All of this notwithstanding the fact that city council voted last August to instruct the city attorney to drop the lawsuit and release the records.
The city continues to expend taxpayer monies by continuing to litigate this through a third-party law firm and by the continued expenditure of city resources by the city attorney’s office and other departments. Why this expenditure continues has not been explained by the Leeser administration and city council chooses to keep the executive session deliberations secret. I understand that under the Texas doctrine of client-attorney privilege any dissemination of executive session discussion could force the waiving of the client-attorney privilege however I find it difficult to accept what arguments, if any, the city attorney’s office would be using to continue to keep government records secret if for nothing else but the city attorney’s office may have knowledge that disclosure of the secret public records would be detrimental to the ballpark project. If that is the case then at what point does the public’s right to open and transparent government becomes subservient to safeguarding the city from the expensive litigation that may result from records that could possibly show malfeasance in the ballpark project.
At what point does keeping government deliberations secret to avoid the expense of addressing malfeasance becomes acceptable in a democracy? The city isn’t likely to give the community the opportunity to answer that question by its insistence in paying to keep the records secret.
For his part, Oscar Leeser opened his administration based on his self-proclaimed notion that government should be transparent before those it purports to serve. However Oscar Leeser continues to preside over an entity that continues to spend taxpayer funds in keeping government secrets, notwithstanding the fact that he pontificated that the records would be released and the taxpayer funds would no longer be expended. Either Oscar Leeser is incompetent and does not understand that the city is still spending money to keep the records sealed or he has resigned himself to the fact that he is nothing more than a mouthpiece for Joyce Wilson and cohorts.
In the latest court filings the community has been informed that the Texas Attorney General’s office is no longer interested in defending the public’s right to know. On March 6, 2014, Kimberly Fuchs, Chief of the Open Records Litigation of the Texas Attorney General’s office filed a response with the court stating that the Texas Attorney General’s office “does not oppose the position taken by the City of El Paso”.
In essence, the Texas Attorney General’s office has thrown in the towel and stated unequivocally that it has accepted the city’s position that since the city does not have direct access to Steve Ortega’s emails then it cannot provide them to Stephanie Townsend Allala under the open records laws.
I am sure some ballpark advocates will distort this to mean that this somehow excuses Steve Ortega’s refusal to release the emails when in fact it just means that Steve Ortega hid behind a loophole to disclose to the community what is rightfully theirs. Very simply, the Texas legislature plugged the loophole after Steve Ortega left office and thus he has hidden behind this to keep his records secret. The legislature clarified the open records laws by specifically adding that government entities, such as the city, have a duty to gather and keep all government communications from all communicating devices from all government officials. Prior to this clarification there was no requirement to gather emails and text messages from elected and other government officials although it was clearly understood that all government business was the property of the community.
Because of this loophole the city has taken the position that it has no authority to force Steve Ortega to turn over all of his emails because he received them prior to the clarification of law. The Texas Attorney General has agreed by not challenging the city’s position in court leaving Stephanie Townsend Allala to fend for the taxpayers of the community by herself.
I have written previously about how government works by attrition. Whether the records still being kept secret are proof of wrongdoing is irrelevant because the fact is that the community of El Paso hasn’t had an opportunity to review them even though everyone agrees, including Steve Ortega, that they are city-related business communications. The city, under the tutelage of Oscar Leeser has taken the position that they would rather have this simply go away in order to let the city move forward regardless of possible wrongdoing being covered up.
Very simply, it is nothing more than the continuation of the “it’s all good” façade the city continues to perpetuate.
For its part, the Texas Attorney General has decided that letting this controversy slide into oblivion will make it all go away. The agency tasked with safeguarding the community’s right to know doesn’t care about the community’s right to know. It is just one more peg in the government self-perpetuating vicious circle of feeding itself through endless political posturing so as not to upset the government’s power over the people. The Texas Attorney’s abandonment of its duty is nothing more than another illusion of an orderly democracy when in fact US democracy is no different than an autocracy made up of the elite with the illusion of respectability. A democracy would pursue justice regardless of the consequences. A dictatorship ensures its continued existence with the manipulation of the intent of the law and ignoring its responsibility to those it governs.
For all of its façade of democracy the fact is that keeping public records hidden especially when everyone has acknowledged that Steve Ortega’s emails are city-business related just proves that it has never been about transparency in government but rather the illusion of it. This exercise has added more evidence to the notion that democracy is nothing more than an illusion.