Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Does Texas Open Meetings Act Need Improvement?

Recently I've commented on the unintended negative consequences of the largely beneficial Texas Open Meetings Act. (For example, here, here, and here). The act requires that local governments, e.g., the Richardson City Council, post agendas for meetings in advance. Consequently, it forbids them from discussing issues raised by visitors, at least during that session. I complained that legitimate issues raised by visitors end up getting swept under the rug.

After the jump, one reader takes my criticism to task.

William J. 'Bill' McCalpin correctly explains that the Texas Open Meetings Act serves to prevent the city council from having surprise discussions and making unannounced decisions without the public having adequate notice. I have no objection to the intention or effect of the act in promoting and ensuring this goal. McCalpin goes on to ask me two valid questions:

  1. What's your solution?
  2. Have you tried just asking one of them off-line?

In answer to the first question, I don't think changes to the Texas Open Meetings Act should be needed. There's nothing in the act that prevents the city council or city manager from responding to issues raised by the public during visitors section of the meeting. They just can't respond during that meeting itself. This is evident from a common promise to meet with the visitor offline to discuss the matter raised. Instead of that, or in addition to that, in the days after a meeting, the city should publish a list of the issues raised, as well as any responses any of the council members or city manager might care to make. They don't have to be joint responses. They don't have to be decisions. But they should be public.

I contend that it is in the best interest of the city, the city council and the city manager to do this. Otherwise, the city's critics get to take pot shots at the city in an open forum without the city's side of the matter being heard. As for "looney" inputs, a simple "no response" in the written responses would convey the city's attitude that the issue doesn't deserve a response.

In short, my "solution" is not to change the Texas Open Meetings Act, but for the city council to publicly respond to public input in public ways that the Texas Open Meetings Act does allow.

In answer to the second question, although I have nothing against offline meetings, what I'm after is more public disclosure of what elected officials are saying in those offline meetings, what claims are made, what commitments are made, what excuses are made. Such disclosure honors the principle that government operate in a way that is open and accessible to the people. That principle is what the Texas Open Meetings Act is all about. Let's live up to the spirit of the law, not just the letter of the law.

No comments: