Jim Tolbert Open Records Requests and Social Media Channels

tolbert-orr-jun16aSince Jim Tolbert took office on May 17, 2016, I have noticed a few constituency requests being made of him through Facebook. These requests got me thinking about government transparency and social media channels. Do not get me wrong, at this point, Facebook requests and most other social media channel requests seem to me to be transparent and open. As such, I do not see a problem with a constituent asking an elected official to intervene via an open social media platform. However, social media channels also have private communications messaging systems that are not open to scrutiny.

You likely know that there have been various controversies about how the City of El Paso manages open records requests. As social media continues to develop, it will be used more often for political communications. As it stands now, and as I understand it, the City of El Paso has tasked city elected officials with the responsibility of providing government records/communications to the city. In other when I request copies of communications between an elected official and someone else, the theory is that the elected officials will provide copies of emails and text messages from private devices, like smart phones. These are added to the documents that the city keeps on its servers for official communications.

What I have not seen and wondered about was whether a mechanism exists for private social media messaging between someone and an elected official. Because I was wondering about this, I thought I would put it to the test. On July 7, 2016, I filed multiple open records requests asking for “copies of emails and text messages, whether from city issued devices/services or from personal devices/services between Jim Tolbert” and specific individuals. I filed one for each specific individual. I asked for documents between “May 16, 2016 through June 20, 2016” and I requested that the search for documents include “social media services, i.e. Facebook, Twitter or Google+ managed by Jim Tolbert.”

I am not picking on Jim Tolbert, but rather he is a convenient test subject because; 1. He is active on social media, 2. Keeps an active blog, and 3. Was recently elected and therefore I could work with a shorter time period for this test run. I also know that Jim Tolbert is publicly supported via social media by other elected officials, like Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar. And, I have seen constituents post requests to his public Facebook page.

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What I wondered about was whether Tolbert was receiving private messages, that were government related, via Facebook, his blog or any other online channels. In response to my open records requests I received the following:

May 16-20 2016: Jim Tolbert to Bob {last name withheld by me} with a copy to Claudia Ordaz in regards to a request to send a resume for an appointment to the Open Space Advisory Board. [3 pages]

May 23, 2016: Susie Byrd sent Jim Tolbert an email giving him information about the “Freedom of Information of Texas.” In the email, Byrd writes; “I would ask them if they have the resources to do a review of open records for the last year to see if they adhere to the law or I would ask them if they know of any attorneys they would recommend.” [1 page]

Also on May 23, a Google calendar invite was sent by Susie Byrd to Jim Tolbert setting a meeting between Susie Byrd, the Border Network for Human Rights scheduled for May 23 at 3:00 to 3:30pm. [1 page]

May 24, 2016: Susie Byrd to Jim Tolbert where Byrd shares a complaint about someone in the neighborhood using their “house as a warehouse.” Byrd sent Tolbert the name of the individual making the complaint, the address of the alleged warehouse and the phone number where the complainant can be reached. [1 page]

Also on May, 24, Susie Byrd sent another email to Jim Tolbert about a meeting that she was trying to schedule with Jay Banasiak, who is with Sun Metro. Byrd writes in the email that she wants to have a meeting to discuss “ways that Sun Metro might be able to help the District meets its transportation requirements for students and obviously in return how the District can help Sun Metro boots paid ridership.” [1 page]

May 31, 2016: Susie Byrd to Veronica Escobar and Jim Tolbert regarding the “watering schedule for schools”. In her email, Byrd forwards four copies of emails between herself and John Balliew of the El Paso Water Utility. (May 19, 24 and 25) In the forwarded emails, Byrd is discussing the watering schedules for the school districts and the city’s parks. During the email exchange, Balliew and Byrd discussed irrigation audits. In the email that Byrd forwarded to Tolbert and Veronica Escobar, she suggested that an irrigation audit for Memorial Park. [2 pages]

June 2, 2016: Jim Tolbert to Susie Byrd regarding a meeting between Jim Tolbert and Beto O’Rourke scheduled for June 3, 2016. Tolbert asked Byrd if she knows of “anything he [O’Rourke] can help” with District 2. Byrd responded that he should bring up “the 90 acres of lower Beaumont” redevelopment that Fort Bliss had been “promising to redevelop.” [2 pages]

There is also another email from Susie Byrd to Miriam Gutierrez and Jim Tolbert. In it, Byrd writes that the “Border Network would like to meet with you [Tolbert] to talk about their proposal for the Municipal ID.” Byrd closes with a request to let her know what time to set up the meeting for. [1 page]

That same day, Susie Byrd sent a Google calendar invitation to Jim Tolbert scheduling a meeting between herself, Jim Tolbert and the Border Network for Human Rights. [1 page]

Also on June 2, Jim Tolbert sent the same email about the scheduled meeting with Beto O’Rourke to Veronica Escobar. He asked Escobar if she knew of anything that could help District 2. There was no response from Escobar in the set of documents that were released to me. [1 page]

June 6, 2016: Jim Tolbert sent an email to Susie Byrd where Tolbert asked Susie Byrd if there was a possibility of building an indoor soccer facility at Crockett. Tolbert’s email was prompted by a District 2 constituent (June 3, 2016) email asking that a sign be placed limiting the tennis courts to tennis only at Memorial Park. According to the email, the tennis nets have been damaged by soccer teams practicing in the tennis courts at the park. Susie Byrd responded that she wanted to discuss the possibility of building an indoor soccer field with Tolbert further. [3 pages]

Also, on June 6, a Google calendar invite was sent by Susie Byrd to Jim Tolbert scheduling a meeting at The Downtowner for that day at 2:00 to 2:30pm. Joe Tellez was also on the invitation list. [1 page]

Another Google calendar invitation from Susie Byrd to Jim Tolbert was sent by Byrd. This invite scheduled a meeting for the same day at 3:00 to 3:30pm, also at The Downtowner, also with Joe Tellez. It is likely that this second invite was a scheduling conflict resetting this, or the other meeting. [1 page]

July 7, 2016: Susie Byrd sent Jim Tolbert a Google calendar invitation for a meeting on that same date at 3pm to 3:30pm to meet with Jay Banasiak, Byrd and Tolbert to discuss “EPISD & City Partnership”.

You can clearly see that no Facebook or Twitter messages were released to me. I know that Jim Tolbert is active on Facebook, as are Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar. Although I do not know that government business messages between them were exchanged via social media, it seems a little strange for me that none were reported to me via my open records requests. I also found it strange that so few messages were exchanged between the three; Tolbert and Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar for the first 35 days that Tolbert was in office.

Both Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar were very active in his campaign. Absent any more information I have to accept this as a true representation of the communications between them.

In regards to whether social media channels, like Facebook, are being used for government business communications and whether they will be released via open records requests remains unanswered. Either Jim Tolbert did not provide the social media government communications as requested, or he had none to provide.

I’ll keeping digging to try and ascertain which it is. I’ll also see if the City of El Paso will include social media communications or will they ignore them for requests made pursuant to open records requests.

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