During city council’s discussion (item 33.1) last week about Cortney Niland asking that the city rescind its prohibition of electronic devices at the city dais during city council meetings, there was another elected official whose government transparency notions need to be scrutinized. As you know, Niland has told you that she will not follow the rules of city council. However, lost in the Niland controversy, were Jim Tolbert’s comments and vote.
During the meeting, Tolbert argued that he should be allowed to keep his personal electronic device with him in order to “take a personal message” from his daughter, as an example. Tolbert argued that elected officials were “adults” and thus they should be allowed to keep their phones on them during the meetings.
Jim Tolbert stated (3:44) “frankly, I kind of wonder if we can be told that we can’t” referring to not being allowed to keep his phone on him during the meeting.
Like Tolbert stated, it comes down to “trust”.
The problem is that the El Paso City Council has been shown numerous times to have abused the use of electronic devices during city council meetings. During the Caballero and Wardy administrations there were several controversies about back-channel messaging going on during city council meetings. During the John Cook administration, it has been documented that back channel communications and council actions were conducted even though the public was not allowed to participate.
Most recently, Claudia Ordaz was shown to be taking direction from someone in the audience during a city council meeting. Ordaz was receiving talking points about what to say and how to respond to an agenda item she placed for public discussion.
The Texas Open Meetings laws are designed to keep the public’s right to participate equally on ongoing public policy discussions. Meetings, by law, are supposed to be conducted openly and transparently. Private communications during meetings, especially those directing a vote, or what point to make during the deliberations, are back-channel communications that bypass the public’s right to know how their government operates.
It has been alleged online various times that Jim Tolbert takes direction from Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar on public policy matters. The open records requests that I have seen tend to insinuate a close working relationship between Byrd and possibly, Escobar.
With the city’s history of abusive back channel public policy deliberations, it is impossible to “trust” the city council as “adults” to do the right thing.
Tolbert insinuated during the deliberations that the city attorney might be wrong about her interpretation of the open meetings laws. Tolbert also expressed his belief that he can’t be told not to keep his smartphone on him during the meetings.
Jim Tolbert was one of the three votes asking that city council members be allowed to keep their telephones with them during city council meetings. Claudia Ordaz, the city representative caught conclusively taking direction during a city council meeting by an audience member was the other vote. Obviously, Cortney Niland was the third vote.
What does that say about Jim Tolbert and his notion of an open and transparent government?
Makes me wonder what Jim Tolbert would be saying today if Larry Romero had kept his city dealings on private devices. It is hypocritical at its core when Tolbert argues to keep back channels open during city council meetings.