Documents obtained by the Weatherford Democrat through an open records request raise questions about whether City of Weatherford resources were used for supportive political advertising during the recent city bond election.
Though the city has not received any complaints, the issue is under review both by internal and outside attorneys, City Manager Jerry Blaisdell said.
Copies of emails obtained by the Democrat indicate three city employees, including the assistant city manager, sent messages from city email addresses during business hours coordinating the creation and distribution of a pro-bond mailer.
Texas law prohibits the use of public funds for political advertising.
Blaisdell also confirmed that the issue of whether residential utility customer information was inappropriately used to mail the pro-bond postcard is also under review.
City policy specifically limits the use of utility customer information.
The Texas Election Code prohibits an officer or employee of a political subdivision from spending or authorizing the spending of public funds for political advertisement. A violation of the law is a class A misdemeanor.
The Texas Ethics Commission, which can assess fines for violations of the law, has interpreted the law broadly, finding in a 2002 opinion that placement of campaign flyers in a teachers’ lounge constituted spending of public school district funds.
“‘Spending’ of public funds includes the use of political subdivision employees’ work time, the use of existing political subdivision equipment, and the use of facilities maintained by a political subdivision,” the commission again found in an opinion issued in February.
A brochure on the issue published on the Texas Ethics Commission website states that “it is not permissible to use or authorize the use of the paid time of an employee of a political subdivision to create or distribute political advertising.”
“We met this morning and have the following recommendations,” Assistant City Manager Sharon Hayes wrote in an email to Mark James of NTX Graphics regarding the appearance and wording on a postcard advocating the passage of the proposed bond.
City of Weatherford Special Events Coordinator Blake Rexroat and Director of Capital Transportation Projects Terry Hughes were copied on Hayes’ email dated 9:48 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 9.
“Guys, let me know if I left something out,” Hayes wrote.
The Democrat was unable to reach Hughes, who was reported to be out of the office, for comment on Monday, and Hayes and Rexroat referred questions on the issue to Blaisdell as it was under review by the city manager’s office.
Records show the postcard was paid for by the Citizens Capital Advisory Committee SPAC, the group supporting the bond.
Documents show Rexroat also contacted graphic artist Mark James about revisions to the postcard from his city email address during city business hours on Oct. 9.
In an email from James sent to Hughes, Hayes and Rexroat the afternoon of Oct. 10, James referenced a conversation with Hughes that morning about modifications to the layout.
Shortly before 4:30 p.m. Oct. 24 Hayes requested James send the Citizens Capital Advisory Committee 2014 an invoice for the work he performed.
Blaisdell Monday declined to address whether city employees inappropriately used city email addresses during work hours for political advertising.
Blaisdell said emails have been under review for about a week regarding the issue.
“I don’t know all the details at this point in time,” Blaisdell said. “I don’t have a report back to me. I know that there was some indication from emails that may have, could have happened but, until I have all the data in, I won’t be commenting on that, and it wouldn’t be right for me to make a judgement without having that completely reviewed.”
Some of the issues under review were raised by the Democrat’s open records request, according to Blaisdell, who said some follow-up by the city had also occurred prior to the open records request.
Records show Hughes also coordinated with Hartness Print Central from his city email address during business hours on Wednesday Oct. 15 regarding the details of printing and mailing the postcard In an email between Hartness Print Central’s Lori Bennett and Hughes that afternoon, Bennett told Hughes that the names and addresses provided needed to be reformatted.
“Is this something that the people who supplied the list can change?” Bennett asked Hughes.
“Let me check,” Hughes responded.
Bennett told the Democrat that Hughes provided the list that was used to mail the postcard. The list included just names and addresses, she said.
In a prior email dated Oct. 9, Brandi Huddleston, customer service manager for the utility billing department, sent Hughes a spreadsheet of residential customer information, according to records provided under the open records law.
It was unclear what information was included in the document sent to Hughes.
The department typically collects customer social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, as well as other information from new customers.
The Democrat asked Huddleston about the email, including her understanding of the intended use of the list, what information the spreadsheet included and whether the email sent to Hughes was a violation of city policy.
However, the Democrat did not receive a response to the questions by deadline.
Customers also have the option of signing a form requesting that personal information, including address, name and social security number, be kept confidential.
When asked whether city residential utility customer information was provided to a third party for the political mailer, Blaisdell said he did not have a factual answer to that question as of Monday afternoon.
“I understand that there was some correspondence that certainly needs to be looked at and reviewed to find out exactly what occurred and that is being undertaken,” Blaisdell said.