Questionable practices have raised concerns about media credibility in Hays County. The couple who own local newspapers also own a public relations firm that contracts with numerous government entities in the area.

Hays Free Press and News-Dispatch, two prominent local papers, actively cover regional news and politics, but a look into their ownership reveals a significant conflict of interest when they report on municipal government issues.

Both papers are published by Cyndy Slovak-Barton, a business entrepreneur and wife of Jeff Barton, a former Hays County Commissioner. What raises questions is that the couple also owns Gap Strategies, a consulting firm for governments and private developers.

Gap Strategies’ website states they “help public officials and private companies succeed at critical infrastructure, policy, and communication challenges.” Specifically, Jeff Barton is the principal partner in helping governments design projects and advocate them to the public.

The firm’s services include planning economic, land use, and transportation projects to provide “win-win solutions for local government and private developers.” They also offer press and media aid for the projects as well as creative public outreach.

What’s troubling is that Gap Strategies has done work for a slew of government entities in Hays County. According to the firm’s other founding partner, Kara Bishop Buffington, Gap Strategies has had clients such as the cities of Kyle, Buda, Dripping Springs, and San Marcos, along with numerous regional private developers and Hays County itself. Buffington, on her LinkedIn profile, also lists several recent county, city, and school district bond elections in which they assisted.

Thus, the Bartons are consultants for government entities and developers in Hays County, yet also run newspapers that report on the same governments they work for.

The recipe doesn’t exactly make for objective news.

Local residents have reason to be watchful of the government projects in their area given that Hays County currently carries almost half a billion dollars of debt, nearly the highest among all Texas counties. That debt is shouldered by local property taxpayers, and for the individual Hays County resident, their debt burden has gone up 318 percent in just nine years.

As governmental entities in the county rapidly churn out even more multimillion-dollar bond packages, raise taxes, and make crucial decisions that will affect residents and their children, local taxpayers must be watchful for objective and trustworthy sources of information.

The Bartons’ Hays Free Press and News-Dispatch, however, leave residents with major questions.

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.