School District Playing With Fire and Open Government

The Inside Scoop

Ray Quiroga

NOVEMBER 23-29, 2018

Coincidentally, I found myself attending the tail end of an open government seminar Thursday afternoon sponsored by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Concluding the daylong workshop was attorney Tom Williams of Haynes and Boone LLP who’s been specializing in open government in Texas for decades. In his years following and litigating these cases at the state’s highest levels, citing case studies and professional experience dating back to the days of AG Jim Mattox and earlier, Williams has seen and heard it all, or so he believed.
During the Q&A portion of his talk, which specifically addressed the Texas Open Meetings Act, I asked Williams, who also sits on the Freedom of Information Foundation board, his opinion of our local situation, where our own school district here in San Benito redacted the video record of last week’s official school board meeting to not include the comments of local businessman Chuy Aguilera, who expressed his views on the treatment of employees and the conduct of the board and district during the public comment portion of the regularly scheduled meeting of the board of trustees.
Williams, who had just concluded providing case study after case study of some of the wildest and most creative violations of the open meetings act in the state’s history, was genuinely thunderstruck when I asked for his opinion on the occurrence we witnessed here last week. He paused, stared up at the ceiling as if to search into the recesses of his mind for a viable answer and said, “That’s the record, and they shouldn’t be doing that,” adding that the only excuse to redact the video is if the comment was so slanderous or outrageous that it needed to be stripped as to not cause further harm, which was far from the case here. Sure, Mr. Aguilera made some sharp observations, but they were far from out of line and they were mostly addressed to public figures, namely the board and administration. Williams was so intrigued that we continued the conversation after the session concluded, at which point he said that Aguilera could seek legal recourse to have the matter rectified, namely have the record returned to its original state. Speaking to Aguilera the following day, the outspoken business leader didn’t appear interested in pursuing the matter legally.
To be fair, this tactic has been employed before, during at least one other administration, yet for an administration that is consistently reminding the public just how transparent it is, it tends to do everything in its power to limit transparency. For those who don’t know, for example, we’re required to submit our questions in writing when we desire to issue a question to the district, at which point the district decides if it wishes to reply in written form. Overall however, the district’s lack of willingness to sit through an interview can barely be called transparent because providing written answers to submitted questions doesn’t allow for dialog or follow up questioning.
Furthermore, upon waiting 10 days for the district to answer a FOIA request regarding embattled former assistant superintendent Dr. Kevin Phillips, the district replied by explaining that two of the three items we requested were either too vague or didn’t exist. One of those items or documents was a copy of an electronic correspondence between the superintendent and at least one member of the board regarding Phillips during a specified time period we provided in our request. Two separate sources at separate times assured us this communication occurred and an electronic footprint existed. For those that don’t know, electronic communication between offices, whether it’s by email, text or other — whether they are from public or private accounts — are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. So to avoid further confusion, the News will issue a request to view Dr. Phillips’ personnel file, in its entirety (personnel files are also subject to the FOIA). And while that request couldn’t be more straightforward on its surface, rest assured that if there’s a way to sidestep it, this administration will find that way.

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