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Dallas City Attorney grilled by councilmembers on transparency, open government

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An interesting exchange took place at a recent Dallas City Council meeting. With transparency and open government issues arising in many locales across the state, it’s important to see at least two city council members take to task city staff for questionable practices that could impede the public’s right to know.

On The Dallas Morning News City Hall blog, reporter Scott Goldstein described the scene:

No one can say Dallas City Attorney Warren Ernst doesn’t know what it’s like to be treated like a hostile witness.

That’s what it must have felt like for him as his bosses on the City Council questioned him about a variety of issues on Wednesday. Ernst was there to brief council members about his office’s goals and objectives for 2014.

After he finished his briefing, council members told Ernst what his goals and objectives for 2014 should really be.

As I noted in an earlier post, Dwaine Caraway interrogated Ernst about the diversity of his senior staff.

Later, council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs, who are both attorneys, hit Ernst on transparency and open records. Kingston and Griggs were two of the three council members who voted against hiring Ernst last year. The other one was Sandy Greyson.

The video clip opens with Kingston questioning Ernst about why different council members often receive conflicting information from city attorneys.

“That’s something I am continuing to grapple with,” Ernst said.

Click here to see video.

The video also captures an exchange in which Kingston tells Ernst how Dallas “has been criticized for being not transparent by watchdog groups who monitor PIA requests” noting the city is known for filing with the state Attorney General’s office the greatest number of open records requests challenges.

“I think it’s the policy of this council to obey the Public Information Act and to be transparent,” Kingston said.

Goldstein notes that while assistant city attorney, Ernst “defended a Dallas police practice that gives employees discretion to destroy emails permanently. He told me in 2012, ‘The job of police officers is to provide public safety … Not to provide a record for you to do your story. So the emphasis is on public safety.’”

When pressed on plans for other changes past upgrading the Dallas Police Department’s records procedures, Ernst replied, “I believe in upholding the Public Information Act as well as you do.”

Griggs later discussed inconsistencies on records retention practices. “We don’t seem to have any uniform policies on that,” he said.

He also expressed support for additional records posted on the city’s website.

“We just put them out there for everyone,” Griggs said.

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