Lane: Secret government almost destroyed city
Dec. 29, 2017 at 10:45 p.m.
Editor's note: This is part of a weeklong series reviewing 2017 in East Texas. Today, Features Editor Christina Lane writes about the year's story that affected her the most.
This year, I was reminded of the importance of open government as I watched East Mountain teeter on the verge of ruin.
The situation that arose this year in the town that sits in Gregg and Upshur counties actually began in 2015, when some residents sought public records, including copies of the city budget, its annual audit and its financial statements. Those documents are public record and must be provided to any taxpayer who asks. But in East Mountain, the elected officials and city manager at that time did not turn over the records — not even after the state attorney general told them to do so.
In 2016, those residents filed individual lawsuits against the city, seeking to have the records released and one that alleged the city had hired the same person to serve as its police chief and city manager when such a dual role violates the Texas Constitution.
Everything came to a head this year.
The police chief resigned, as did the mayor, but the records still were not released — until the lawsuits went to court and a judge demanded it.
Once the records were made public, it became clear why officials had wanted to keep them hidden. The city's finances were in ruin. Officials at the time had depleted the city's general fund, then its reserve fund and then began making payments out of the city's water fund — an act that also wasn't legal. Expenditures included salaries but also things such as meals at numerous restaurants on taxpayers' dime.
It was shocking and disappointing.
The city eventually lost its entire police force, and then the City Council saw a turnover, as new people became interested in public office amid everything happening in the town.
In May, the city secretaries quit amid allegations that they changed passwords to municipal computers and refused to give out the new ones. That effectively caused the city to shut down for a few days as the new council and volunteers worked to recover the city's systems and bring them back into operation.
Today, East Mountain has recovered its systems, and City Hall is open. The town is operating with a small staff and is working toward financial recovery.
I've covered a lot of stories in Upshur County in the past 10 years, but what I witnessed in East Mountain this year was shocking — there's no other way to describe it.
The town was split. I saw people who believed they were right arguing against other people who also believed they were right — but isn't that how most arguments are? Each side thinks they are correct; the truth probably is somewhere in the middle.
But when I stood inside City Hall in May, watching people trying to restore access to computers as a "closed" sign was posted on the doors outside, I felt such utter sorrow. East Mountain is a city with a long history in East Texas, and its residents feel so much pride. It was heartbreaking to see the city effectively shut down.
There were many people this year who said East Mountain should just dissolve, but a group of residents worked diligently to make sure that didn't happen. They didn't want to lose their town, its history and its identity.
I'm appreciative to those folks who worked to make sure the city is still standing and who are working toward its recovery. And I'm also appreciative to those who spent their own money and put their reputations on the line as they sought public records from the city for the past several years in an attempt to right the wrongs that were happening in the town.
This year reminded me of why it is so important to have an open government and why we all should be watchdogs in holding our government accountable.
— Christina Lane is the News-Journal's features editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.