Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fighting City Hall ... in Court

Earlier this week, I blogged about Richardson being at the crossroads, dialog or pitchforks. Will a constructive dialog between the city council and the public be nurtured or will it suffocate in an increasingly poisonous attitude by uncompromising critics? After the jump, a lawsuit that's a bad sign for which direction the city is headed.

Yesterday, the crowd of villagers bearing pitchforks and torches boarded a DART light rail train for a trip to downtown Dallas to show support for William Gordon, a Richardson resident suing the city over the city council's use of executive sessions to deliberate in private. The Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals was hearing oral arguments in the city's appeal of a pre-trial ruling by the judge in the 68th District Court. The Dallas Morning News' Ian McCann reported on the hearing.

(Most readers' eyes have probably glazed over already, but don't worry. Skip the rest of my blog, skip over Ian McCann's account, and jump right to the comments section in the DMN for some of that pitchfork and torch action. That'll snap you back to attention.) (Update: the DMN moderators have taken down some of the most popcorn-worthy comments. I'm afraid you'll just have to use your imaginations.)

William Gordon, by the way, ran for RISD board of trustees in 2005 (and lost) and then ran for Richardson City Council in 2007 (and lost again, finishing fourth in a field of five candidates). But you'd be hard pressed to paint him as your average crank or kook.

The details of Gordon's lawsuit are at once simple and complicated. According to Gordon's attorney, the 1989 Richardson City Charter called for "no closed meetings. Period." The city council clearly had been holding so-called executive sessions while that charter was in effect, a clear violation of the city charter. Open and shut case, right?

Not so fast. The city's attorney says that the same 1989 Richardson City Charter gave the city council powers under the state's Open Meetings Act, which allows for closed meetings on certain subjects. (For example, do the citizens of Richardson really want the meetings where the city council discusses amongst themselves real estate negotiations to be open to the public? I'm sure the real estate developers would love it, but the taxpayers?)

One question that will have to be settled in any eventual trial is just how does the court reconcile these seemingly contradictory provisions in the Richardson City Charter? But it may never get that far. Because in 2007, the voters of Richardson amended the city charter to broaden the council's authority to hold such executive sessions. The city attorney claims that, under the current charter, Gordon's lawsuit is moot. The case might be dismissed.

What William Gordon seeks to accomplish through his lawsuit is unclear. Even if a court agrees with Gordon that the pre-2007 actions by the council were in violation of the city charter, so what? That charter is no longer in force. Or at least it's been amended in the area in question. As Ian McCann says, "It is not clear ... what kind of remedy would be in order should the city lose the case."

To me, nothing the court could end up doing will harm the city as much as the potential harm the city is already threatened with by the poisonous atmosphere developing in Richardson city politics. The city may not be able to do anything to satisfy the cranks and kooks. But it can, and must, do more to gain the trust, the support, the involvement of the public at large in city government. The uncompromising critics are already handing out pitchforks and torches. The city council needs to make sure they don't find a receptive audience.

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

The City of Richardson posted this item in its 'Week In Review' for November 12, 2010.

'City Prevails in Open Meetings and Charter Lawsuit

'A lawsuit alleging the City Council violated the City Charter and the Texas Open Meetings Act by holding closed meetings has been dismissed. The Texas Court of Appeals for the 5th District issued its mandate November 8, 2010 after the plaintiff failed to timely seek review by the Texas Supreme Court of the July 2, 2010 decision of the Texas Court of Appeals in favor of the City.

'The plaintiff alleged the City Council violated the City Charter and the Texas Open Meetings Act by holding closed meetings because the language in the Charter required all City Council meetings to be open to the public and because the Open Meetings Act does not authorize a closed session when a charter contains such a provision. In 2007, the Charter was amended by an overwhelming majority of those voting and the language in question no longer exists.

'The trial court had denied all of the plaintiff's claims with the exception of whether the charter allowed the City Council to hold closed meetings. On appeal, the Texas Court of Appeals initially reversed the trial court decision, but following a motion for rehearing by the City, the Court of Appeals withdrew its opinion of March 18, 2010 and issued a new opinion on July 2 in favor of the City, affirming the trial court and dismissing all of the plaintiff's claims.'