City Hall

In Praise of Leaks and Leakers Here, in Washington, All Around the World

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I understand why leaks in Washington about Trump are a big deal and my leaks about things like drainage problems in Dallas, not so much. I think I have a pretty good working sense of proportion. But leaks are still leaks, and I have my reasons to make sure people here in my backyard keep on leaking.

I live by leaks. Leaks R Us. If it weren’t for leaks, I might have to get a job. The basic leaking process works the same whether it’s way off in Washington about Trump or here in Dallas about drainage. So I think I know a thing or two about it.

Some people might assume leaks in Washington are a bigger deal than here because leaks in Washington break the law. First of all, few leaks, here or there, actually break the law. Most leaks just embarrass the law. But for the sake of brevity (ha!), let’s concentrate on the ones that do break the law, supposedly.

Leaks here break the law all the time, too. Or at least they break what somebody claims to be the law. Take so-called “executive sessions” — closed meetings of a public body, the proceedings of which are supposed to be secret. Members of public bodies leak that stuff all the time, even though government lawyers tell them they can go to prison for it.

Why would they do it anyway? Because the smart ones know that most of the time, the government lawyers are bluffing. The lawyers know they’re bluffing. They only hand out memos threatening to put people in jail because some angry bigwig is trying to keep a secret and tells them to.

But it isn’t true; they could never put anybody in jail because usually the executive session itself is being used illegally to hide information that should, by law, be made public. That might need explaining.

The Texas Open Meetings Act sets up rules under which an executive session can be called. The rules make sense. An executive session is called to discuss things behind closed doors that should stay behind closed doors.

Some things are, by their nature, private, like the details of a personnel dispute. Some things are necessarily confidential, like a contract that’s still being negotiated, so that revealing details would blow up the negotiation.

There are some things you might as well not even try to talk about if you can’t do it privately. Everybody gets that. And in fact, a member of a public body who divulged purely personal information from a personnel file would be a no-good person. Why would anyone do that? Only to harm some individual, not for any truly public purpose.

Same thing with details of a negotiation that are of a purely competitive or proprietary nature, not related to any real public policy question. The only reason to divulge something like that would to disadvantage one party in a competitive process and give someone else the edge unfairly.

That’s why you really don’t see too many of those kinds of leaks, the gratuitous ones that have no real public value. I happen to believe most of the people in the news business and most of the people in public service have a good basic moral understanding of privacy. They know the difference between appropriate discretion and hiding the ball.

But hiding the ball brings us back to the lawyers and bluffing. City council members or school board members or members of any public body can’t be prosecuted for divulging the contents of an executive session if it was not a bona fide or legitimate executive session under the law.

The executive session is used often as a means of improperly hiding information that ought to be and needs to be public.

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All the leaks I get from executive sessions — and I get a ton of them — are things that were being discussed behind closed doors only because somebody wanted to hide the ball, not because there was a legitimate personnel issue or something sensitive about a real estate transaction or anything like that. In those cases, the executive session is used often as a means of improperly hiding information that ought to be and needs to be public.

In many cases, the executive session was called and the matter discussed in executive session precisely because some fool thought that was a good way to hide the ball. If you want to know which fool, look for the person who told the lawyers to send out the threatening memos.

Of course, assuming whoever is behind it has a normal trainable IQ, he’s going to try to dress up the issue as a personnel issue or a proprietary matter of some kind, but that doesn’t mean it is.

In 2013, Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs and former council member Angela Hunt brought to light that then-City Manager Mary Suhm had signed a deal in which she basically agreed to be an unpaid lobbyist for a fracking company that wanted to drill in city parks, even though Suhm had received specific, direct instruction from the City Council not to allow fracking in parks. The former city attorney tried to use a combination of stalling on open records and executive sessions to prevent the public from learning about Suhm’s dealings.

So I got some of that stuff leaked right to me. We published a story about it. By the following week, the issue was the topic of a robust, very public debate before a full open session of the council.

In spite of previous threats made against any council member who dared divulge proceedings of an executive session, no member of the City Council ever got even an air kiss from the city attorney about the leak because leaking that information did not break the law. It restored the law.

But for a few well-timed leaks to the Dallas Observer a few years back, this is what some Dallas city parks might look like today (minus the hills in the background).
U.S. Geological Survey
The law said city staff was supposed to do what the City Council told it to do. The staff wasn’t doing it. That was an important public issue. The public needed to know about it. Ultimately, it’s up to the public to take care of its parks. The public can’t take of the parks if it doesn’t know what’s going on. The leaks restored the public’s ability to act responsibly in the defense of the public interest.

The leak honored the law. It was the secrecy that broke the law.

Leaks are oxygen to the democratic process. They are the ultimate reason no one will ever be able to shut down democracy in this country with anything less than guns.

Now, does that make leaking a beautiful thing? Well, not always beautiful. You know, on my end I can’t afford to just sit on a wire all day like a buzzard waiting for something to die. I have to fly on out there and nudge the process along sometimes. Obviously that involves looking for, identifying and cultivating likely leakers. But I love doing that. It’s like bass fishing. You look for the pattern.

For example, in a place like Dallas, which is very oligarchic with a hard-edged pyramid of power, you have to know that people at the very tippy top-top of the pyramid get screwed over every day just like the people at the bottom. Well, maybe worse, because all of their best friends are professional screwer-overers. And the thing about the people at top: If they don’t have any little fish to screw over up there, they get bored and screw over one of their own. The rule is: It’s Monday, and somebody's got to get screwed.

That’s the fish I look for — the odd man out. When that fish leaks stuff to me, it’s usually really good. Those are very good fish. In bass fishing circles we call them lunkers, so in journalism I guess they would be leaker lunkers.

The secret, I think, is that everybody all up and down the pyramid of power and glory is pretty much the same. We all operate the same way. We have the same basic hopes, fears, loves, hatreds and ambitions, just some with more zeroes attached to them.

Intelligence also is scattered evenly up and down the pyramid. If you could freeze-frame everybody and administer definitive IQ tests, the guy on his knees out in the yard planting flower bulbs in the beds could be smarter or dumber than the guy inside doing coke in the Jacuzzi with a lingerie model. It’s fairly random.

Leakers are my personal heroes for two reasons. They even the score. They pay my rent. I bet it all works much the same way in Washington.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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