Secret Emails and the Lizard People

Every citizen of El Paso should be troubled by the City’s actions, and inactions, concerning the “secret” emails demanded by Stephanie Townsend Allala in an effort to shine daylight on the process through which the City erected a ballpark on the site of City Hall.

Let me bring you up to speed, in case you’ve only been reading the El Paso Times, which, for reasons known only to its editorial board, refuses to cover the issue.

Currently the City is fighting to absolve itself of the responsibility of presenting public records demanded through a FOIA request. (The courts have previously ruled that emails sent from private email accounts that deal with city business are public records.) The City maintains that it has done all it could to present emails from personal accounts of City Council and City Staff. Susie Byrd, Cortney Niland, and Joyce Wilson all turned in what they claimed were all the relevant emails, but they’re fighting a deposition to swear to it. Steve Ortega hasn’t, and he says he won’t without a court order. Which seems to imply that he will if he receives a court order.

But the only entity that can get a court order is the City, which legally owns the emails that concern City business, which are public documents no matter which email accounts they originated from.

All of the legal issues are pretty well established by case law. El Paso isn’t the first city to have a city council discussing issues “off the books,” so to speak.

But instead of demanding the emails from Mr. Ortega, which is the prudent and efficient thing to do, the City is going to court to claim that it has done all it can to present the emails in question. Which is a lie, because the City hasn’t sought the court order to compel Mr. Ortega to surrender his emails.

Why doesn’t the City want the emails that Mr. Ortega is holding onto? I submit that perhaps Ms. Byrd, Ms. Niland, and Ms. Wilson deleted some relevant emails before they turned them in. That’s why they’re not willing to submit to depositions regarding the emails, as requested by Ms. Allala and ordered by the court. And that Mr. Ortega’s emails will corroborate that fact.

Ms. Allala has a top-notch lawyer who specializes in open records cases. He won’t fumble this one. So apparently the City is only stalling for time. Why?

Is it because if City Manager Joyce Wilson is fired for cause, like violating the Texas Public Information Act, she won’t receive her $60,000 a year pension? Is it because the emails reveal things worse than walking quorums? Will the emails show that El Paso’s city government is comprised entirely of lizard people preparing the earth for an intergalactic invasion? Or engaged in baby trafficking? Or in league with the cartels?

The contents of the emails are interesting and important, but an equally pressing concern is why the current administration, which presumably has nothing to hide, is fighting their release? Are they, somehow, culpable in a similar situation? Is Mayor Leeser just the latest edition of the same Good Ol’ Boy network that’s been afflicting El Paso since forever?

Does the City have so much extra legal capacity that it can afford to devote lawyers’ time to this frivolous project? Or, is their contempt for the democratic process so complete that they’re willing to spend more of our money to keep us from the truth?

One comment

  1. I will not hazard to guess why the city refuses to do what’s necessary to release the emails. As one of three media requestors (El Diario de El Paso, KVIA, and myself as an independent journalist), I simply want to recount my experience in trying to obtain such records.

    In late August 2012, while working for Newspaper Tree before I was laid off then fired, I went to a community meeting held at a public space on the West Side, attended by city officials including Joyce Wilson and Courtney Niland. They were there to promote the upcoming AAA baseball stadium vote (to pass a hotel tax to fund the stadium). The audience was very contentious—it was an interesting event, to say the least.

    Later, while examining the “Chucoleaks” emails obtained by Stephanie Townsend Allala, I found one dated the day after the community meeting. It was from Joyce Wilson, sent to City Clerk Richarda Momsen. Wilson’s email asked Momsen to answer a question posed by an unnamed citizen, about how one could go about quashing anti-stadium and city-hall-demolition petitions. The question and additional comments were pasted into the email, but in such a way that the writer’s identity was masked. Here is the email:

    It appears to be from someone who knows Joyce Wilson personally and who is on a first-name basis with “Ann” and “Debbie” (presumably Ann Morgan Lilly, former City Council member, and Debbie Hamlyn, formerly a deputy city manager). The cut-and-paste-anonymized writer also mentions being a notary public, and someone who knows Jim Tolbert.

    Given these details, I thought I might know the writer’s identity, and I suspected an ethics conflict with this particular person attempting to work with city officials to influence the outcome of a public vote.

    To test my hypothesis by ascertaining the writer’s name, I wanted to see the original email that person had sent to Joyce Wilson, before it was cut and pasted so that the writer’s identity became hidden.

    I sent an open records request to the city, asking for any and all August 2012 emails sent to Joyce Wilson, Ann Morgan Lilly and Debbie Hamlyn, containing language in the cut-and-paste of the August 27 message.

    After much delay and legal wrangling, the city asked Wilson, Lilly and Hamlyn if they had emails like the ones I was asking for.

    Lilly said she didn’t. Hamlyn said she was no longer working for the city by the time the cut-and-paste email was sent (that’s correct: she had retired, but was still working as a private consultant for interests promoting the stadium vote). She was not legally obligated to give her personal-account August email to the city.

    Wilson replied that she had no such emails.

    That was rather hard to believe – because if Wilson didn’t have the emails, how had she gotten the material that was cut and pasted to Momsen on August 27?

    I’ve heard that if a city official deletes an email from his or her personal account, it’s not there anymore, even though once upon a time it was. For instance, say you receive an email on your Gmail account. You read it, move it into “trash,” command trash to delete it permanently—and it’s down the tubes unless someone with legal authority goes to Gmail with a warrant. If this is true, perhaps the city should be pursuing warrants. But I have no money for a lawyer to follow this line of inquiry.

    In the end, my question remains unanswered: Did someone break an ethics rule by trying to work with Wilson to quash a petition?

    Who knows?

    My concern could have been unfounded. But exploring hunches often leads to good and important stuff. It’s outrageous that Townsend-Allala and the rest of us can’t get what we want, and this is so regardless of whether we’re tilting at one windmill or thousands of them. You’d think the entire local media would care about this freedom-of-information violation. I was told by KVIA that higher ups don’t want to spend the money, and I imagine that’s also Diario’s problem. Who in El Paso’s 4th Estate has mega-funds to press the point? The city wouldn’t have them, either, if it didn’t have El Paso taxpayers forking out for legal bills.

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