Part Two: What is the City of Elkhart Hiding?
By Will Johnson
ELKHART – Over the course of the last several months, the city of Elkhart has raised a few eyebrows with its actions. A termination for no stated reason, a nearly 100 % turnover at City Hall, questionable comments from city officials, a blatant disregard of a contract, outright deception and a city council meeting roped off by caution tape are but a few of the peculiar events/actions swirling through the city of Elkhart.
As a result, The Messenger Newspaper has filed several Freedom of Information requests with the city of Elkhart in an attempt to get answers to several questions.
The first item of interest concerns the termination of City Secretary Carla Sheridan which was covered in part one of this series.
The second item of interest concerns a Freedom of Information requesting “… copies of any video recordings of any actions recorded in Elkhart City Hall during the time frame of May 31, 2019 until June 6, 2019.”
Sheridan was fired on June 4 but on the June 3 city council agenda, item 13 stated, “Discuss and take action, if any, sending Carla Sheridan to the TRWA Office Professionals Conference in San Marcos June 5th through June 7, 2019.”
The city of Elkhart replied to the FOI request on July 1 via certified mail. The city’s response stated, “Pursuant to Section 552.301, the city of Elkhart is requesting an opinion (from the Texas Attorney General’s Office) regarding this Public Information Act request.”
A second certified letter was received on July 16. The second letter stated “… the information sought by requestor relates to the termination of the former City Secretary Carla Sheridan on June 4, 2019. On July 9, 2019, the city submitted a separate request for opinion with your office concerning the same recording sought by requestor (a resident of Elkhart) here. The city references its arguments from its July 9, 2019 opinion request, as if originally pled herein.”
The letter further stated the city requested an opinion from the AG “… about whether the requested information is excepted from disclosure under the Act.”
From there, the correspondence “… claims the requested information that is collected, assembled or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by a government body or is excepted from disclosure as it is.”
The letter further stated the city has four active surveillance cameras, three inside the offices and one outside the back door.
“Those cameras are video only, with no audio, and they are not recorded on a permanent basis, but instead are motion-activated write-over files that are used only for staff to watch who is coming in and out of the front and back doors of City Hall,” the correspondence stated.
However, the letter goes on to list seven reasons why the video should not be released to the public, if such video footage exists.
The seven listed exemptions are:
- Certain addresses, telephone numbers, social security numbers and personal family information might be revealed.
- Information concerning litigation or settlement negotiations might possibly be revealed.
- Information relating to competition or bidding might be revealed.
- Information pertaining to certain legal matters might be revealed.
- Interference with detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime may occur.
- Certain information related to terrorism and homeland security matters might be revealed.
- Certain photographs of peace officers might reveal the identity of said law enforcement official.
The footage might also reveal criminal activity occurring within the walls of Elkhart City Hall. It has been alleged members of the public were seen assisting with records removal and reorganization. These very records the city references in its arguments for exemption were allegedly handled by Elkhart residents who were not authorized to see an employee’s SSN, their credit information or any type of medical information.
The letter further states, “The city acknowledges that the public has a right of access to records generated during the course of business here at City Hall. Current City Administration, in fact, promotes transparency. The City has complied with each and every request that has been submitted since by Requestor, with the exception of the footage.”
Why? Does the footage exist or does it not and if it does, what is the city of Elkhart hiding?
As of press time on Aug. 2, the AG’s opinion had not been received. Part three of this article will address previous political fallout which possibly led to Sheridan’s termination.
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.