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Online posts by council members walk ethical line

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Posted: Friday, August 28, 2009 12:00 pm | Updated: 8:11 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Hailey Persinger

Killeen Daily Herald

The state of Texas sets strict guidelines for closed meetings, but when it comes to online discussions of those meetings, the lines begin to blur.

Killeen City Council members discussed City Manager Connie Green's evaluation behind closed doors Tuesday, but posts to an online forum frequented by some council members enter what City Attorney Kathy Davis calls a "gray area."

At-large Councilman Larry Cole, who posts as "Grumpy" on CenTexTalk.com, disclosed several of the topics council members covered during Tuesday's closed session.

"Yes, the insurance problem was discussed. Yes, an open door policy was discussed. Yes, our relationship with other government entities was discussed. Yes, individual relationships were discussed. And Yes, CenTexTalk was discussed," Cole wrote.

The City Council's standards of conduct, a document signed by all council members at their swearing-in ceremony, states that confidential information, "including all discussions in closed meetings," will be safeguarded by those who sign it.

Though Davis said Cole's statements on the Web site are not in direct violation of the code, discussion on public forums like CenTexTalk.com is something she wishes council members and city employees would avoid.

"I wasn't too alarmed," she said. "But it would be better for them to not discuss it at all."

The forum includes threads on topics covered by the council and other dilemmas the city faces. Hot topics include the First Baptist Church project, the citywide smoking ban and the city manager evaluation thread, where Cole posted his vague account of Tuesday's meeting.

Cole said he never overstepped any confidentiality boundaries and that he had the best of intentions when he went online to "short stop" rumors surrounding Green's evaluation.

"There were a lot of people on that forum that were after his hide," Cole said. "So what I wanted to do was real quickly put those people to rest by saying the council supports Connie 100 percent."

After reading the statements Cole made regarding those rumors, Green agreed. He said a play-by-play of the evaluation's scores and exact wording would have been cause for alarm, but Cole's statements were not specific enough to warrant action or concern.

Though Davis and Green both agree that statements made online by council members have not overstepped any boundaries, Mayor Timothy Hancock said he would steer clear of forums like CenTexTalk.com when it comes to sensitive matters. He also said the confidentiality clause has no hard-and-fast guidelines and is open to interpretation.

"I will not discuss any evaluation," he said. "That's unfair. That's a personal thing between the council and Mr. Green, but I'm not criticizing anyone for how they interpret closed session."

Still, Cole stands behind his actions on the forum and hopes to bring more transparency to city government by sharing viewpoints and engaging in discussion with his constituents online.

"I am of the opinion that we need to be open and look at what we do," he said. "We will make mistakes, admit the mistakes when we make them and go on down the road. But trying to cover up and keep from seeing our mistakes … is not my idea of democracy."

Contact Hailey Persinger at haileyp@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7568.

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