During city council’s discussion (item 33.1) last week about Cortney Niland asking that the city rescind its prohibition of electronic devices at the city dais during city council meetings, there was another elected official whose government transparency notions need to be scrutinized. As you know, Niland has told you that she will not follow the rules of city council. However, lost in the Niland controversy, were Jim Tolbert’s comments and vote.

During the meeting, Tolbert argued that he should be allowed to keep his personal electronic device with him in order to “take a personal message” from his daughter, as an example. Tolbert argued that elected officials were “adults” and thus they should be allowed to keep their phones on them during the meetings.

Jim Tolbert stated (3:44) “frankly, I kind of wonder if we can be told that we can’t” referring to not being allowed to keep his phone on him during the meeting.

Like Tolbert stated, it comes down to “trust”.

The problem is that the El Paso City Council has been shown numerous times to have abused the use of electronic devices during city council meetings. During the Caballero and Wardy administrations there were several controversies about back-channel messaging going on during city council meetings. During the John Cook administration, it has been documented that back channel communications and council actions were conducted even though the public was not allowed to participate.

Most recently, Claudia Ordaz was shown to be taking direction from someone in the audience during a city council meeting. Ordaz was receiving talking points about what to say and how to respond to an agenda item she placed for public discussion.

The Texas Open Meetings laws are designed to keep the public’s right to participate equally on ongoing public policy discussions. Meetings, by law, are supposed to be conducted openly and transparently. Private communications during meetings, especially those directing a vote, or what point to make during the deliberations, are back-channel communications that bypass the public’s right to know how their government operates.

It has been alleged online various times that Jim Tolbert takes direction from Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar on public policy matters. The open records requests that I have seen tend to insinuate a close working relationship between Byrd and possibly, Escobar.

With the city’s history of abusive back channel public policy deliberations, it is impossible to “trust” the city council as “adults” to do the right thing.

Tolbert insinuated during the deliberations that the city attorney might be wrong about her interpretation of the open meetings laws. Tolbert also expressed his belief that he can’t be told not to keep his smartphone on him during the meetings.

Jim Tolbert was one of the three votes asking that city council members be allowed to keep their telephones with them during city council meetings. Claudia Ordaz, the city representative caught conclusively taking direction during a city council meeting by an audience member was the other vote. Obviously, Cortney Niland was the third vote.

What does that say about Jim Tolbert and his notion of an open and transparent government?

Makes me wonder what Jim Tolbert would be saying today if Larry Romero had kept his city dealings on private devices. It is hypocritical at its core when Tolbert argues to keep back channels open during city council meetings.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

6 replies on “Jim Tolbert and the Art of Hypocrisy About Transparency”

  1. Mr Susie Byrd in pants, we are all adults and should be trusted. That’s your logic.

    Perhaps we should repeal the majority of city ordinances. Ordinances are rules to direct certain behavior, whether it be ordered to do or not.

    So why isn’t the public allowed to decide what’s best for ourselves?

    Btw, I don’t like the police telling me I can’t use my cell phone while driving. I’m an adult and should be trusted to use good judgement on when and where I want. Now, I have to keep my phone on in case of a family emergency and accept that call while driving. Why should I be required to stop my vehicle in a safe location ?

    I suppose Ann Lilley Morgan chose to ignore the law against assaults and the authorities chose not to prosecute because they are adults and should be trusted. We can’t be trusted therefore will be prosecuted should we decide to assault a city employee.

  2. Off topic Martin but I got to love how Jaime Abeytia writes how every blogger is relevant cause you guys write about him, truth of the matter is that all he writes about are rebuttals to all the bloggers posts aka damage control or what Vero & Vince tell him to post about. Funny la boca Del Valle wants to sell how the quarter time politicos deserves the raise, than he goes on the record that it was his words that pushed YISD Bond. People are beginning to see him for the sake he is.

  3. There is also a First Amendment arguement a the Government Actors could make/claim. One could look to first and secondary caselaw on this as I am sure there is some.

    The Feds get away with it under the undefinable, abused and unwritten “Abundance of Caution Doctrine”. I dont know how many times I had to explain to the federal acting- in- concert private security guards at the El Paso Federal Courthouse that I don’t have a car to leave my phone inside, until they all got to know me. Infact at the old fed courthouse i recall seeing phones stashed under the palm trees.

    Maybe VIP Esquires got better treatment.

    The important thing to note here is that the reason the Clinton and Ordaz’es of the world are having to dump all contents but their love lifes is because of phone tag eg the reason everyone started emailing and texting is because no one likes to play phone tag, the old at the buzzer please leave a message trick. So Government Actors arse get nailed to wall over a email, when if they not been so lazy, busy or pre-occcupied [take your pick] it would’ve of a taken a hard bureaucRat wiretap to get the goods otherwise.

    So rather than move to Montana or learn that less is more or be brothered with phone tag, we got all thses burning email issues to deal with. Frankly i got such a love hate relationship with my phone even after unlocking it, Rooting it and installing hot rod apps, i still wish for the old more simple days. Not only is the Nuclear Family the minority today but also have you ever listened to [overheard] at least on buses peoples conversations with their families i assume, its like we are all dysfunctional and erratic, ADD etc when you overhear the converstations that used to be reserved for behind closed doors or pillow talk. “Where the *ell are you?” “Dont forget the” ‘okay okay i got to go.’ etc etc

  4. Even more hypocritical, look at the supposedly devoted environmentalist’s campaign donor list? None other than Stanley Jobe, the guy destroying parts of our beautiful Franklin Mountains.

  5. A simple solution, install an electronic interference device in CIty Council and Commisioner’s Court. Many churches use them to prevent incoming or outgoing electronic messages during church services…

  6. Thanks for bringing this up, Martin. Tolbert is dangerous. His comments in Council that day show how his mind works. The bottom line is that Council itself has chosen to make a no-electronic-device-during-meetings rule. Anyone going against that is in violation of Council’s own rules.

    City Code , Article III, Section 3.5, B. states that by majority vote Council “may expel a member from a Council meeting for disorderly conduct or serious violation of its rules and may order that member to be physically removed from the meeting.”

    I consider violating the electronic device rule serious.

    What’s equally important is that Tolbert used the electronic device debate (and his 45-minute rude, accusatory questioning of the Police Chief Allen) as a smoke screen to take the attention away from the fact that Tolbert voted to raise our taxes. Tolbert voted to raise taxes despite saying at several public forums during the election that he would not. Tolbert stated that he would cut fat from departments and projects or would delay the QOL projects before he would raise taxes. Many people heard him say this.

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