Following the latest attempt by city officials to block records from public view, a Killeen city councilman is calling for an examination of how the city handles public information requests.
It’s a discussion well worth having.
The city’s handling of public information has been a source of concern in recent months, with several council members calling for better transparency.
Newly elected City Councilman Gregory Johnson has taken it one step further, formally requesting that the city’s new mayor, Jose Segarra, and interim city manager, Ann Farris, look into the city’s protocol regarding public information requests. He asked that the issue be listed as a discussion topic at an upcoming council meeting, and Farris has placed it on the agenda for Tuesday’s workshop.
Johnson’s request comes on the heels of the city’s recent attempt to block public access to records pertaining to former Mayor Scott Cosper.
The city filed its request with the state attorney general’s office on April 15, about three weeks after a private investigator asked the Killeen Police Department for any possible “offense reports” relating to the former mayor, whose two-year term ended last month.
While the city eventually released some documents to the Herald that were initially requested by the investigator, officials did so only after several delays and significant prodding — and without informing the Herald of their prior request to the AG’s office to withhold some of the information. The city belatedly acknowledged the AG request, but the city’s public information director, Hilary Shine, wouldn’t provide the date it was submitted.
Further, Shine offered differing reasons for denying the information over the course of several days before finally complying with the request, in part.
The city’s foot-dragging response did more than block information to the media. It also potentially impacted the city’s voters at a crucial time.
Cosper, who subsequently won the Republican runoff for the Texas House District 54 seat, had sent a campaign mailer alleging that a private investigator had been hired to dig into his family’s affairs. When the Herald filed a request with city asking for a copy of such a request, the city complied within 24 hours, producing the letter from a Round Rock-based investigator seeking reports on Cosper.
However, the city subsequently failed to quickly produce any responsive documents or deny that any such documents existed, thereby creating the impression that potentially damaging information was being withheld.
However, the documents the city eventually released — after the runoff election date — contained little of substance and nothing negative about Cosper.
Further, by providing several, seemingly arbitrary reasons for withholding the information, Shine created the impression that there are no set rules governing the release of information — an issue that certainly must be addressed.
In response to these events, Johnson wrote to city officials, “It is important, as representatives of the people, that we are fair, open and transparent.”
Johnson is to be commended for standing on principle. It’s imperative that other council members join his efforts to clarify city policy and push for increased transparency.
Further, it is crucial that council members consider these issues when vetting applicants for the open District 2 seat — a process they will begin at Tuesday’s meeting. The successful applicant should be committed to transparency at all levels — from public information to the city’s budgeting and accounting process.
Finally, it’s essential council members look for a strong commitment in these areas when interviewing candidates for city manager in the coming months — a process crucial to the city’s future.
The only way to remove the cloud that has been hanging over City Hall is to commit to bringing in some sunshine — in the form of transparency and accountability.
And the time to start talking about that commitment is now.