OPINION COLUMNS

All Around Wise: Ruling undermines Texas Open Meetings Act

By Richard Greene | Published Saturday, March 2, 2019
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Before starting my first full-time job 20 years ago this May, I’d been to one city council meeting and that was as a small child because of a mishap with our dog.

My editor handed me an agenda and notepad and off I went for a baptism by fire. Luckily, I’d had the equivalent of a local government professor as a teacher for sophomore reporting in the great Keith Shelton.

Richard Greene

Shelton had drilled us consistently on the Texas Open Meetings Act and the few exceptions that can be discussed by entities in secret – employment of actual employees and not appointed officials or generic jobs; security; consultation with attorney for contracts or litigation; real property; and for school districts the discipline of students. There are a few other exceptions in the law.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours waiting for different school boards and councils to emerge from their chambers of secrets to more often than not say “there’s no action to be taken.” I admit it’s a buzzkill, especially waiting five-hours plus. I know to bring snacks.

This week the Open Meetings Act was in the spotlight after the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals in hearing the appeal of a Montgomery County case decided that the provision requiring a quorum for secret deliberations was “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision was to keep public officials from holding deliberations in small meetings outside the view of the taxpayers and media.

As a strong public information advocate, the ruling is disappointing as it opens the door for some less scrupulous officials to hide information from the public.

But I’m also encouraged by many lawmakers stepping forward to support the intent of the Open Meetings Act and insisting officials follow the spirit of the law.

“Texas has long been, and will continue to be, a leader in governmental transparency,” wrote Gov. Greg Abbott. “Regardless of the ruling, my standard and expectation is for all agencies and boards to continue to follow the spirit of the law. You should not waver in your commitment to providing transparency in the work you perform for Texans at your respective governmental entities.”

District 61 Rep. Phil King said Friday: “I agree with the governor and believe we should follow the spirit of the law. Everything in government should be in public unless there is a legal and very compelling reason for it not to be in public.”

Before waiting on the legislature to address the issue, every local entity should pass their own rules to require a quorum to hold secret deliberations.

King said he expects multiple bills will be brought forth to address the vagueness of the wording, along with other bills to make even more information public.

District 30 Sen. Pat Fallon also wants to see legislation to address the issue.

“Texans need to know that their government’s business isn’t being hidden from them. If the court is right that the ‘rolling quorum’ law is too vague, we need to craft a law that lets citizens know what their government is doing without making local elected officials have to ask a lawyer every time they want to talk with someone about city business,” he said.

That would be a win for everyone along with cleaning up some other details as what truly constitutes personnel. Job descriptions and appointments of elected officials should not be discussed in closed session. The public has a right to know about these issues.

Also final decisions must be voted on in open session. But often times, boards and councils emerge to make a quick unanimous vote. This indicates that there is polling and consensuses being reached behind closed doors, which while may be legal, goes against the spirit of the law.

A final thought, I did find ironic that part of the defense was squelching the officials’ first amendment rights. This is something I’ve argued with attorneys for school boards and cities in the past about elected officials’ ability to speak on closed sessions. It is an elected official’s first amendment right to say what they want, and they can spill the beans about an issue or topic as long as they are not putting the entity at financial risk.

I’m sure I’ll be hanging around after a closed session or two next week. I’ll happily accept snacks.

Richard Greene is the editor of the Messenger.

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