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Bell County official reminds of disturbing open government issues

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Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown's editorial page commendation of Temple Daily Telegram reporter Alex Wukman's "excellent" open records article attempts continuing the article's original theme supporting the county's alleged responsible, responsive treatment of information releases. It also creates thought-provoking questions.

  • Did Wukman and/or his interview subjects know of the Telegram's document sharing (with this writer) of county-provided public information? Sharing of a subset of information highlighted in the article?
  • Did anyone involved understand the documents shared clearly violate, as per Wukman's quotes of the public officials, Bell County's claimed practices and compliance standards?
  • Would any one of the parties have concerns that this release appears to contain information officials claim is illegal to distribute?
  • If Wukman is this "increasingly rare" specimen of "expository journalism," wouldn't intellectual curiosity have prompted a review of similar documents his employer was known to have in its possession?
  • And what's up with county officials? Was no thought given to the existence of documents that contradict their claimed position? Did they think local media was so "in their pocket" that it didn't matter? And does that along with a potential view of the public as stupid - or at least so disengaged - assuage concerns?

Wukman's original article

In a June 4 Telegram article, Wukman and county officials took to task an information request submitted by this writer for several years of former Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales' emails. Morales, at this time, was also a long-standing county employee.

The public information request, submitted Feb. 12, 2013, asked for copies of emails from Judy Morales’ county email address Feb. 1, 2011 through Nov. 30, 2013. An initial estimate in excess of $56,000 was later revised to slightly more than $50,000 with the figures attributed to a need for review and redaction of 80,118 individual emails.

This filing came on the heels of a late 2013 information release requested by the Telegram for a subset of these emails in seeking to determine if Morales violated county employee policies and/or state election laws by utilizing county employees and resources during her 2011 city council campaign.

Morales' notification by Bell County Judge Jon Burrows of the paper's request appeared to provoke her "delete, delete, delete" action, an action that landed her a Class B misdemeanor criminal conviction for destroying, removing or altering public information. Morales also later resigned her city council position ahead of being removed from office, an office in which she was serving illegitimately.

What's good for some doesn't apply to all?

Perhaps what Wukman and his county contacts didn't know is that just weeks before, Wukman's employer, the Telegram, had shared with me its subset of Morales' emails, documents that fell within the timeframe of information I had requested.

My argument for release of the emails: bringing a new set of eyes, a different perspective and base of knowledge to table. And damned if that isn't exactly what happened!

Needless to say, Wukman's article brought new significance to those emails.

The county not only complied with the paper's request, but appears also to have provided the materials - 11,322 emails - at no charge.

The proclamations by Burrows, County Attorney Jim Nichols as well as Temple City Attorney Jonathan Graham took a high-handed tone in addressing the challenges faced by governments in dutifully and forthrightly fulfilling open records requests as well as the compounding of these challenges when parties ignorant of the law make requests. They addressed the need for reviewing and redacting significant pieces of information to ensure adherence to privacy laws, protections to which individuals potentially referenced in the emails are entitled.

Yet, while only 500 or so of the 11,000+ emails provided to the Telegram have been reviewed, no evidence of the county's redacting has yet been found. Meanwhile, based on the reported comments of officials, other content raises flags:

  • Information regarding Morales’ 2011 city council election including campaign materials, planned activities and voter information. An email trail in which a county employee offers purchase of an ad in a church fund-raising publication to “help people who do not know you” was also found.
  • Contact information – names, emails and phone numbers – of individuals seeking HELP Center assistance.
  • Communications with members of varying civic organizations and other institutions not clearly tied to official county HELP Center operations (Citizens for Progress, LULAC, 2011 Temple ISD pro-bond election coalition and Temple College) with numerous personal emails and cell phone numbers included.
  • Name and other personal contact information of what appears a former employee filing a “complaint/grievance.” The email also includes a partial statement of the employee's view of events and position.

The bottom line

Preliminary findings suggest that the information handling deemed as required and generating considerable expense for my public information request wasn’t performed for this subset of the same information requested by the Telegram.

Fulfillment of the Telegram's information request appears to have been produced at no cost. A June xx public information request asking for charges quoted to the paper has to date - and past the response time prescribed by law - gone unanswered.

Meanwhile, Brown additionally used his recent letter to the editor to boldly pronounce "too many people get information from the Internet, or talk radio" with "neither bound by moral or ethical constraints regarding the truth."

He went on to also discuss how "the price we pay is a loss of trust." A loss of trust certainly exists in today's political landscape with politicians and establishment media the biggest losers. And the growing crossover trend of politicians landing jobs in media while media often aspires for government employment (like a public information officer) further fuels credibility gaps.

Brown offered his "congratulations to Wukman and the Telegram for a job well done."

The Telegram is establishing itself as an influential local media source providing important content on topics like accessing public information, questionable government practices as well as investigative pieces on actions specifically impacting taxpayer interests. It also is to be credited for recognizing the value cooperation with other media interests can bring.

Wukman's reporting, meanwhile, has exposed taxpayer liabilities with regard the county's inappropriate release of information along with its apparent hypocrisy and double-standard when it comes to releasing public information.

Brown is finally right on one count - congratulations are in order!

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