Saturday, March 20, 2010

Law & Order: The Appeal

Richardson City Attorney Pete Smith

For the last several years, the City of Richardson has been defending itself from two lawsuits regarding, not eminent domain or taxes or even trash pickup, but how the city council conducts its meetings. One lawsuit charges the city with holding closed executive sessions prohibited by city charter. The city council implicitly acknowledged this (if not legally admitting to anything) by holding a charter amendment election in 2007, which passed, making the offenses alleged in the lawsuit moot today. The other lawsuit charges the city with unlawfully lobbying for passage of the charter amendment.

The lawuits have been making their way through the courts, slowly, as most such lawsuits do. In December, city attorney Pete Smith briefed the council, in open session about the status of the cases.

After the jump, an update.

This week, two appeals courts handed down rulings in the case. Both disagreed with the city and sent the cases back to the lower courts for more hearings or, just maybe, an actual trial. Or the city might appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. Whichever way it goes, we're a long way from the end of these cases.

Just how are these cases likely to end?

Well, the city might win, the lawsuits dismissed and the city continues doing business the way it does now, holding closed executive sessions only in limited situations as specified by city charter and the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Or, the plaintiffs might prevail, in which case the city will continue holding closed executive sessions only in limited situations as specified by city charter and the Texas Open Meetings Act.

That's right. Either way, nothing changes in the way the city council operates, because the city charter has already been amended to allow the kind of closed executive sessions at the heart of the lawsuits. In the worst case, closed executive sessions might have to be suspended for a time until the city can hold another charter amendment election. But no matter how these lawsuits turn out, the city council will be able to hold closed executive sessions.

Why is that a Good Thing™? Because it's only common sense that when you have, say, someone suing the city, you don't want that someone to be privy to the legal advice the city is receiving. Or if the city is buying or selling property, you don't want the other party to be privy to the city's deliberations over asking/selling price. There are some things that obviously are best done in closed executive session, which is why the Texas Open Meetings Act allows for them, why the old city charter was in need of amendment, and why the amended city charter was easily approved by Richardson voters in 2007. And why, when you think of it, this plot line will never be seen on the television series "Law & Order." It's boring.

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