Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Refusing to answer raises question of guilt
A few weeks ago, a ridiculous, incomprehensible situation played out in a special meeting of the Victoria City Council. What should have been a quick meeting to canvas the results of the recent election, swear in new council members and set a date for the runoff instead became an hourlong session of questions, accusations and outrage.
We have already called council members David Hagan, Emett Alvarez, Josephine Soliz and Joe Truman to task for their behavior at that meeting, but their actions also raised an important question: Did these four discuss or plan their actions before the May 14 meeting? If they did, they would be in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which says public business must be conducted in public.
Certain statements and actions during the meeting as well as some information gathered during further investigation seemed to indicate this was a possibility, so the Victoria Advocate filed two open records requests. The first request was filed May 15 and asks for the emails leading up to the May 14 meeting from all of the City Council members at that time on city-owned iPads or other city devices. The second request was filed May 20 requesting phone records from all of the council members from noon May 13 to midnight May 14. The standard amount of time to fill an open records request is 10 days. The city has missed both deadlines.
Four of the seven named in the requests, Mayor Paul Polasek, councilmen Tom Halepaska and Truman and former mayor Will Armstrong, said they intend to comply with both requests; Hagan, Alvarez and Soliz have not. City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz said he hopes to have the information he has collected available by Monday. All seven have turned in their city-issued iPads to Gwosdz.
This refusal to comply with an open records request is troubling, to say the least. If Hagan, Alvarez and Soliz do not think they did anything wrong, why delay or refuse to comply with this request? Withholding this information seems to indicate they are hiding something, whether they are or not.
We encourage all members of the council to do their civic duty as public servants and comply with this request. As public officials, any communications dealing with public business is part of public record, whether it is discussed over a city device or a private email account. This refusal damages the credibility of both the city and the individual council members and implies their actions before the May 14 meeting were less than legitimate. If the requested records are not made available by Tuesday, the Advocate plans to file a formal complaint with the district attorney and attorney general.
The penalty for trying to circumvent open meeting laws, according to state law, is one or both of a $100 to $500 fine or confinement in the county jail from one to six months.
If these elected officials - whose job it is to serve their constituents in a trustworthy, above-board manner - once again refuse to acknowledge what the law clearly outlines in black and white, they should be held accountable.
This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.