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County officials' cellphone debate raises First Amendment questions

Published On: Apr 22 2013 01:03:18 PM CDT
Updated On: Jan 15 2014 07:12:57 PM CST

ABC-7s Matthew Smith reports.

EL PASO, Texas -

A discussion about banning electronic communications during El Paso County Commissioners Court meetings drew a lengthy discussion about First Amendment rights.

El Paso County Commissioner Sergio Lewis said he wanted to implement the policy to increase transparency.

“I do oppose cell phones, quite frankly whether it’s private or personal,” said Sergio Lewis, stressing that he was only raising an issue with electronic messages during open meetings.

Lewis pointed to a ban in the Colorado Senate, as well as local communities outside of Texas. However, the assistant county attorney said she couldn’t find any similar statutes or policies in the state of Texas.

Holly Lytle, an assistant county attorney, was asked to discuss the item and issues she saw with it. Lytle told Commissioners she didn’t believe the policy as written by Lewis wouldn’t be enforceable. But according to her, there could be a potential lawsuit tied to free speech if a policy was passed.

“Is it overbroad?” questioned Lytle, telling the Commissioners that she believed the policy needed more work before it could ever be enacted.

County Judge Veronica Escobar and Commissioner Vince Perez were the most vocal during debate tied to the bill.  During the meeting ABC-7s Matthew Smith noted that Escobar seemed to opposed the bill.  Escobar and Perez said after the meeting they only opposed the policy it in it's current form.

Perez and Escobar went as far as questioning whether someone else had helped draft the policy. Perez pointed out a similar item was recently brought up by the city of El Paso. Escobar said it seemed like it was written by a lawyer, and asked whether someone had influenced the item.

“There has been nobody, especially before the agenda item,” said Lewis.

Lewis said his staff had spent numerous hours working on the provision.  However, after roughly an hour of debate, he decided to table the item. Issues raised by Lytle caused Lewis to ask for more time to go back and speak with her in the weeks ahead. They’re planning to bring the item back in the next few weeks after open-meetings bills are waded through on a state level during the Texas legislature.

The item spurred a second conversation about cell phones. During the previous budget crunch the county cutback on cellphones.

Perez was asking that cellphones be purchased for Commissioners and their staff.

Commissioner Dan Haggerty said he had a concern with that item tied to cost. He pointed to the savings the county made when cutting back previously. He said it was around $200,000.

County staff said they should take the item back and determine whether the amount of money needed makes sense.

There were also questions about whether there is currently a policy tied to cell phones that the county would potentially be provided. Commissioner Lewis said he didn’t think it was fair to be discussing it if they had determined to table the item that Lewis brought up.

Perez said he didn’t feel comfortable waiting.

“I don’t think it’s fair that my staff has to give out their personal cellphones,” Perez said before he moved forward asking for a vote, but capped the cost of the cellphones at $12,000.

Lewis argued that it was premature and would set an example for the employees of the county that Commissioners aren’t following their own policy.

“It sets a bad precedent, this is way too fast,” said Lewis, telling fellow Commissioners he wouldn’t support the addendum without vetting the amount being spent first.

The vote ultimately failed by a vote of 2-to-3.  Commissioners Carlos Leon, Sergio Lewis and Dan Haggerty voted "no."

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