Call for Public Help in Analyzing City Council Members Private E-mails, Text Messages
Volunteers Needed to Review Correspondence and Provide Feedback About Any Irregularities
In response to open records requests, The Austin Bulldog has obtained hundreds of pages of e-mails and some text messages in which members of the Austin City Council communicated among themselves using personal devices or personal accounts.
Your help is needed in poring over these e-mails to create a better public understanding of these communications. It’s a work party and you’re invited. Read the messages and e-mail your findings to The Austin Bulldog at [email protected]
If you decide to jump in and help, here are some questions to keep in mind:
Why private?—Help figure out why the city’s business being discussed in these messages was not conducted using city accounts. Does it appear to be a matter of convenience or does it indicate a desire to evade public scrutiny?
Walking quorum?—A walking quorum exists when four or more council members discuss the same topic of public business among themselves. That could occur when one string of e-mails circulates on that topic among four or more members of the council. A walking quorum could exist when disconnected strings of e-mails in effect establish a quorum discussing the same topic. E-mails among fewer than a quorum may make reference to discussions with other council members that when taken together indicate establishment of a walking quorum.
City e-mail addresses?—Do any of these e-mails involve one or more city e-mail addresses? Point those out so we can research them further.
Controversial topic?—Are the council members discussing something controversial and if so, what seems to be the reason for using private e-mail accounts?
Ask for confidentiality?—Do any of these messages explicitly ask for or imply that the discussion should be kept secret?
To access 115 pages of Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s private e-mails released April 8 click here.
To access 14 pages of Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez’ private e-mails released April 8 click here.
To access nine pages of Sheryl Cole’s private e-mail and Facebook message released March 31, click here.
To access 11 pages of Council Member Laura Morrison’s private e-mails released March 30 click here.
To access 33 pages of Morrison’s private text messages released April 8 click here.
To access 104 pages of Council Member Randi Shade’s private e-mails released April 8 click here. (This link is no longer functional.)
Council Member Bill Spelman has not released any e-mails involving a private e-mail account. He released three e-mails involving his University of Texas account on March 29. To access those 10 pages, click here.
Various press releases issued when these records were released characterized these actions as purely voluntary; claimed the law was not settled on the matter of whether private e-mails about government business were public information; and expressed concern about implementing a policy that might violate the privacy of employees and members of the public
None of the press releases issued by the mayor or council members mentioned the intense pressure for releasing these messages resulting from The Austin Bulldog’s open records requests of January 19, 2011, and January 27, 2011; The Austin Bulldog’s lawsuit filed March 1 concerning the mayor and council member’s failure to comply with the Texas Public information Act because the council members withheld these communiqués; or The Austin Bulldog’s civil complaint filed March 23 with Travis County Attorney David Escamilla on much the same grounds as the lawsuit.
The city’s reply to The Austin Bulldog’s lawsuit is due to be filed Monday, April 11.
All of these actions—and failures to act—come as Escamilla continues to pursue his inquiry into the city council’s violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, as reported by The Austin Bulldog January 25.
After 5pm Friday, April 8, the City of Austin’s Public Information Office released private e-mails about city business that were sent or received by Mayor Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Martinez, and Council Members Riley and Shade. Council Member Morrison released text messages between her and other council members.
On March 30 Morrison released five e-mails involving city business conducted on her personal e-mail account.
On March 31, Cole released one private e-mail and one Facebook posting, both involving city business.
This project was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help bring help to sustain this kind of investigative reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.