City officials address alleged TOMA violation, open records

EL PASO, TEXAS - Thursday's City Council meeting was the first chance to hear from City Rep. Cortney Niland after she was out for weeks due to a family illness.

She credited her fellow council members for taking care of her district, including Duranguito. 

"In my absence, I believe there have been eight very, very capable individuals doing their best for this public," says Niland. 

Niland answered questions about the meetings held on December 16th at the Hotel Indigo and City Hall, where surveillance video shows Niland enter the mayor's office with him. Representatives Lily Limon, Jim Tolbert and Peter Svarzbein were also there.

The meeting is significant for two reasons:

First, the council members in attendance voted four days later to take Duranguito out of play and consider the Convention Center as a possible arena site. Second, the Texas Rangers are now investigating whether the Council went out of its way to avoid a quorum, a possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). 

"There wasn't a quorum, we just sat down and talked to the constituents that were there," says Niland.

NewsChannel9, through an open records request, got text messages about the two meetings. Rep. Limon's release of texts and emails show conversations with Niland, but we did not get the mirrored messages back from Niland.

"When the request came to me, I turned over everything I had in my possession," says Niland. 

NewsChannel9 asked Rep. Jim Tolbert about his texts; communication we didn't get from him, but from Rep. Limon.

"You know I gave you what I found on my cell phone and that's it. So obviously I may have texted and I may have deleted it. That's it," says Tolbert.

NewsChannel9 also found this email between Rep. Tolbert and City Attorney Silvia Firth where Tolbert asks, "did you get my Facebook message? You need to take a look at the El Paso County Historical Commission on Facebook."

Firth responds saying "I do not interact with City officials on Facebook because of the Texas Public Information Act and the Council resolution which prohibits us from doing City business on sites, which cannot be accessed by our IT department."

Tolbert tells NewsChannel9 Council has been trained on these policies and that the City attorney referred him to the policy.

"I wanted to point out to her hey take a look at this thing and I happened to be on Facebook and I fired a message. She corrected me," says Tolbert.

Also at Thursday's meeting, Mayor Oscar Leeser addressing open records and the use of personal email for City business. 

"Every email that I ever receive is through the City. Never on a private email do I answer or receive any outside emails," says Leeser. 

NewsChannel9 submitted an open records request for emails and texts from the mayor regarding the downtown arena, but nothing was released. 

Back in January, during an exclusive interview with NewsChannel9, Mayor Leeser said we would get zero emails back from his office. 

An open records request asking for the same information from the mayor's chief of staff turned up hundreds of pages. The majority showing the mayor's City email and at least two showing a personal email. 

"My personal email is my personal email. I do get emails that come from the City, so I can read them and never answer them through my own personal email. Anything answered, anything done stays within the City," says Leeser. 

The City's policy says City business sent from or received by a personal email account or device should be forwarded to an elected official's city email address. However, the City told NewsChannel9 there was nothing responsive to our requests from the mayor's public account. 

"You asked me to release my text messages, which I don't do business through text messages. Whatever we had we released it," says Leeser. 

Also out of the open records requests was a text message conversation between Rep. Jim Tolbert and Mayor Leeser. 

Tolbert tells Leeser "I cannot be at your meeting because of a quorum. At least give me the courtesy of a call afterwards." Leeser responds "If you want to come and be a part of the meeting, I will step out. I just didn't want to have any questions regarding quorum."

Earlier this week City Attorney Silvia Firth held an on-the-record roundtable with news directors from El Paso's local television stations and two newspapers. 

According to Firth, she is aware that City officials use personal emails and cell phones saying "we have a big problem." 

Firth tells NewsChannel9 it is up to City officials to self-regulate compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act. 







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