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Our Opinion: What are they trying to hide?

Despite numerous requests, the city of Kyle continues to stonewall and use delay tactics to withhold information regarding finances, employment and internal investigations.

It’s no secret to most who attempt to take a closer look at the inner-workings of the city of Kyle that there is something a bit off. 

We live in a day and age where the whole of the world’s knowledge is available to us on the device in our pockets. So, when we look to see what is happening in our local governments, most of this information is readily available to us from the comfort of our own couch. But, when local residents look to the city of Kyle for information, they may be shocked to find that access is lacking.

For example, a majority of the governmental entities around us have free online access to financial disclosure reports for elected officials. The purpose of this is to disclose sources of income for officials so that community members are able to see if a conflict of interest exists for the council member related to specific topics. Currently, the only way to obtain this from the city of Kyle is to request the documents through the online records request. To get an idea of how long it would take to get this information in comparison to other local entities, our office requested these documents at 12:21 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 16. We received the documents on Friday, Dec. 2 at 4:40 p.m.

In the time we waited for the documents, council conducted a special meeting to choose a firm to assist in hiring a city manager. If there had been a conflict of interest, which would be seen in the financial disclosures, it would have been too late to object by the time documents were received. Depending on the timing of a request, waiting two weeks and two days for a response means someone could miss both meetings of the month, with numerous items voted and potentially approved.

And finances are not the only records that are hard to come by at the city of Kyle. In July 2022, the Hays Free Press began investigating the now resigned city manager, Scott Sellers. Although the details were vague at first, it ultimately came to light that the city had received multiple sexual harassment complaints from employees.

At the July 5 meeting, the first council meeting following Sellers going on an unplanned sabbatical, council went into executive session to discuss, among other items, a “personnel issue.” Through open records requests, the Hays Free Press discovered that, during that executive session, council members Dex Ellison (now resigned,) Yvonne Flores-Cale, Ashlee Bradshaw, Daniela Parsley, Michael Tobias, Mayor Pro Tem Robert Rizo (now unseated) and Mayor Travis Mitchell were given and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.

The agreements stated:

1. By signing this Agreement, I acknowledge and understand that the information discussed, heard, or read in City Council executive session on July 5, 2022 regarding resolution of a personnel matter (the “Matter’) is received by me in the course and scope of my duties as a City Council member and that the release of such information could adversely affect the property, government, or affairs of the City.

2. I further agree not to make disparaging remarks in any form and to anyone, whether oral, written or electronic, and whether to the community or on social media about the Matter. I agree that I shall not respond to any written or verbal requests for information about the Matter and shall refer all such requests to the Interim City Manager or City Attorney. The obligations in this clause continue after the employee involved in the personnel matter is no longer employed with the City.

As reported in September, this is a strict violation of the council members’ First Amendment rights. Following this meeting, there seemed to be little talk as to why Sellers was not in the office. Then, in a morning meeting on Saturday, July 23, council voted to put Sellers on paid administrative leave pending the results of an internal investigation

Ultimately, council accepted resignation from Sellers on Sept. 6. In a press release after, the city stated, “After thoroughly investigating, the city found no unlawful harassment or discrimination. However, considering all factors both internally and externally, Sellers has decided to resign.”  However, according to a response to an open records request, the city found “no responsive records.” The request was for “A copy of report of findings for any investigations performed by, ordered by or paid for by the City of Kyle in reference to complaints against former city manager Jeffrey Scott Sellers.”

On Oct. 6, the Hays Free Press  requested clarification in the form of an email to all council members and the city secretary, Jennifer Holm. One council member responded that they would look into it. As of publication time, no response or clarification has been received, which begs the question: was an investigation actually conducted or is the city hoping to hide behind vague language until interest dies down?

Fortunately for residents and taxpayers, the Hays Free Press is not the only news source in the area requesting documents. News outlets in Austin and San Antonio have done stories recently regarding information they have requested from the city.

Unfortunately, despite digging deep into records for the last six months, we fear that what we are finding is only the tip of the iceberg. Other documents the Hays Free Press has requested that the city of Kyle sent to the Attorney General include:

• The report of the investigation into Scott Sellers for misconduct.

• Communication from Union Pacific Railroad wherein it rejected the pedestrian tunnel project.

• Communication wherein council was notified that the pedestrian tunnel project was found not viable.

• The severance agreements between multiple former employees of the city, to include the former city manager.      

The Open Records Act provides the AG 45 business days to respond to requests — in addition to the 10 days the city has to send notice it is requesting AG ruling —and five days to explain why it is claiming to exempt the records. In the end, this causes a delay to receive timely information.

More recently, the Hays Free Press has requested an update on the professional services agreement with RSM US, LLP, in an estimated amount of $45,000. This agreement, approved at the July 19 council meeting, was to conduct an examination of all City credit card transactions and all expense reimbursement to City Council, City Manager, and other City staff incurred over a five year period beginning Oct. 1, 2017 and ending March 31, 2022. This was approved after council previously directed staff to do an internal audit regarding council and city manager expenses and “make sure they add up” at the April 5 meeting.

It is a common sentiment that where there is smoke, there is fire. When the majority of responses to inquiries involving the city of Kyle come from its legal representation at Knight Law Firm, one might consider that to be smoke.

As journalists, it is our responsibility to be watchdogs for the people by being unbiased and transparent in our reporting. When there is a lack of transparency and accountability within the community, it is our duty to bring this to light and ensure that we are getting all sides of the story. Unfortunately, the city of Kyle is not giving us the opportunity to do so. 

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