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2014-01-23

City issues gag order

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Attempting to control the (mostly bad) messages coming out of the City of Bandera of late, Mayor Don Clark and City Administrator Mike Cardenas have instituted what amounts to a gag order on city employees and staff. It is unclear whether the gag order affects elected officials.
On Friday, Jan. 17, a memorandum to city employees, signed by Cardenas with a copy going to Clark, stated: "All contact with reporters or other representatives of the media (or anyone whose likely purpose is to report back to the media) will be handled only by the City Administrator and Mayor, no agendas may be sent to particular citizens without a specific request. Any violations will be grounds for disciplinary action."
Therefore, under this new policy, should the Courier wish to report on vandalism that took place in the City Cemetery in December, the newspaper would have to contact Clark, who would, in turn, ask City Marshal James "Charlie" Hicks for his investigative report. Then, Clark would eventually get back to the Courier with the requested information. The newspaper would then publish the "facts" that Hicks told Clark who relayed them to the Courier. That, in judicial legalese, would be termed "hearsay."
According to municipal attorney Monte Akers, the city is on "solid ground" when it informed employees that all contract with the media or anyone who would "report back to the media" be handled by the mayor, city administrator or another designated employee. "This is different from telling employees that they are prohibited from speaking to a reporter, and many cities have a policy of having only one designated 'public affairs' or similar contract person for media communications," Akers wrote in an email dated Jan. 16.
Regarding the agendas "not being sent to particular citizens without a specific request," Akers advised that the city could legally stop agendas from being distributed or sent to 'particular citizens' - specifically draft agendas that are neither posted nor finalized.
He also advised the city to release agendas only in response to specific Public Information Act - aka Open Records - requests or "at least in-person visits to City Hall from citizens." Additionally, Akers noted that a provision in the Open Meetings Act states that a city is not required to honor "standing" requests for documents - presumably Akers was referring to draft agendas - and that each document must be requested specifically.
Usually agendas for Thursday city council meetings are posted just prior to 5 pm the Monday before the meeting in question. Normally, the Courier accesses the agenda at that time. However, it would appear that information is contained in draft agendas that the city would prefer not to be public knowledge. Therefore, the Courier plans to send in FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request) for the draft agenda items as submitted by the various councilmen.
Just to be clear, with the gag order currently in place, any necessary clarifications from city employees and staff and perhaps even city council members about points discussed during public meetings or even questions about agenda items must now be filtered through the ears and lips of the mayor or city administrator.
When informed of the recent gag order, one longtime city watcher felt compelled to ask: "Just what is it that the city is trying so hard to hide?"