Abuse not the way to handle requests

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Perhaps the largest and most important part of a journalist’s job is to shine a light on things many people do not see.

Whether it’s government practices that aren’t above board, a company that has questionable practices, a candidate who has buried secrets or a myriad of other issues, it’s up to us to give people all of the facts, even if those facts aren’t positive. The job can be ugly in that way, but it’s important to tell these stories, good and bad.

In today’s world, media outlets aren’t the only ones with access to – and a willingness to share – public information. The Oklahoma Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act are tools not just for journalists, but also for anyone seeking information on government’s inner workings. This is a good thing; it’s a way for people to be informed, to get involved in the world around them.

But there’s a gray area that becomes an issue. That’s the place where news outlets and others don’t find the news, they push to make it. With partial (or sometimes no) facts, they dabble in rumor and innuendo. In the process, good people can get hurt. In these circumstances, a light is not shown on issues or injustice, but rather on people who seem to have different motives. In those cases, the quest for public information has nothing to do with informing the public or public service.

Such appears to be the case with a former Mustang official and current resident who has taken his “search” for information to extraordinary lengths and for no apparent legitimate reason.

Former Mustang Ward 6 Councilman Donal Mount has used words – a lot of them – over the last few years to presumably get to the bottom of a myriad of city issues. Through more than 80 letters and open records requests, Mount has obtained reams of documents from city officials. Requests have ranged from contract questions to city financial issues and beyond.

While it’s commendable for any city official to go above and beyond in his duty to his constituents, there becomes a time when requests can cross the line to intimidation and abuse. When an individual uses words as weapons and consistently appears to look for “issues” – where none have been even suggested – words become accusations. Even the appearance of accusations, founded or unfounded, can cause problems for both individuals and entities.

“Intimidating” and “abusive” – that’s the way some Mustang staff members described Mount’s communications to them and about them.

“It is becoming more and more difficult for me to sit in the mockery of a formal council meeting,” Mount wrote to fellow council members in an Oct. 2 email. “Perhaps the new city manager thinks that he has an equal voice, consideration, rights and discussion privileges as does a city council member.

“I think that early in the new city manager’s tenure, it should be explained to him exactly what his duties and responsibilities are,” Mount concluded.

But it is Mustang’s city managers who have been the brunt of Mount’s wrath since his 2011 election. In letter after letter, Mount has used his words to hit over the head those who have been hired, and appear dedicated to, serving the city.

If this barrage, no matter the tone, had stopped after Mount lost the Ward 6 seat and left council, one could argue the former councilman was perhaps just zealous in the representation of his constituents. If the tone of his requests led to a resolution of his requests, perhaps he would be a concerned citizen getting answers. That’s not the case, however. In a series of May correspondence sent to Rooney, Mount continued personal attacks on that official – for records he requested May 17 and had not picked up as of June 10.

“It is comforting and I am pleased that ‘you look forward to hearing from me soon,’” Mount wrote to City Manager Tim Rooney May 17. “I can gather from the tone of your letter the apparent anger, hostility and combative attitude you have toward me…”.

In fact, it is Mount’s review of the documents he requested that has led to a series of communications up through June 3 between the men.

The issue, perhaps, goes back to the original request. Like the other requests made by the former councilman, he states he wishes to review documents; he will then advise city staff which he wants to copy.

In the recent series of emails and letters, the city manager attempts to advise Mount when he and/or City Clerk Lisa Martin will be in the office so the former councilman can review documents. It is that offer that has led, time and again, to a June 3 communication from Mount to Rooney.

“I simply must work harder at helping you ‘understand,’” Mount states. “I have interpreted nothing and I do not have to because the ‘law’ is very plain and clear.  I understand emphatically what was communicated to me by you and I have a number of highly educated people that concur with my understanding.

“Now as to ‘understanding’ and ‘interpretation’ perhaps this will help you a great deal,” he continues. “I continue to appreciate your kindness, respect, thoughtfulness, and gentle attitude.”

It’s not wrong for anyone to request documents or ask questions. I applaud anyone who cares enough to attend council meetings and who takes the time to find out what’s going on. Not enough people do that, let alone who even know who their representative may be or what the city is doing.

It is when you have someone who is abusing the tone and spirit of open records acts, who uses something meant to protect as a weapon against individuals who have very little chance of defending themselves that there is an issue. According to city records, many documents requested by Mount were provided to him as a member of council long before he even submitted his open records requests – he voted on many of them. It is unclear why the former councilman needed information after he already voted on a matter.

Beyond the tone and spirit of these requests, there is a very black and white question that affects all Mustang residents. How much does this cost? Mount’s requests and correspondence – most recently arguing over him simply going to city hall to review documents – are sent not only to Rooney, but to City Attorney Jonathan Miller. How much have taxpayers paid for these exchanges – and what has been the benefit to them?

We all should be more proactive in how those who govern us act and what they do. That doesn’t give any of us the right to be abusive or to use something that was meant to help shed a light on things as a weapon.