Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What I Hate About Texas Open Meetings Act

The Texas Open Meetings Act is one of those good intentions that doesn't work out as well in practice. In the words of the Texas Attorney General, "The Texas Open Meetings Act honors the principle that government at all levels in this state should operate in a way that is open and accessible to the people." In practice, the Texas Open Meetings Act sometimes does just the opposite.

After the jump, the transcript from the May 10 Richardson City Council meeting.

Mayor: "Item #4: Visitors Item. Let me just say that in compliance with Texas Open Meetings Act, city council may not deliberate or vote on any matters raised during this visitors section, uh... may make comments, council, I mean the mayor or city manager may make comments or brief statements regarding specific recitals of policy in response to any inquiries."

Visitor: [The specifics of his complaint are not important, but he did blast the city council about a certain city policy using words like 'mad like hell,' 'highly unethical and immoral,' and 'looks awful.']

Mayor: "Thank you, Doctor. What I'd like to do is spend a little bit of time with you, if I could, at a future date. OK?"

So, to remain in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, the mayor and city council can't respond to issues raised by citizens, at least not immediately in open session. Instead, the matter is taken offline, one on one, leaving the rest of the residents of Richardson completely in the dark concerning the mayor's and council's attitude towards the issue raised. The mayor and council members are conveniently off the hook, not having to take any position at all.

Defenders of the Texas Open Meetings Act might say that the city council is free to add the contentious matter to a future agenda and discuss it in open session at that time. Yes, and they are also free to schedule voluntary self-flagellation sessions, too, but don't hold your breath waiting for any elected official to do anything but be thankful to sweep unpleasant criticism under the rug and hope it doesn't ever come back. The Texas Open Meetings Act, rather than bringing sunlight, the best disinfectant, to local government, in practice has given local officials legal cover to say, "no comment" and quickly move on to less rancorous matters. And that's what I hate about the Texas Open Meetings Act.

P.S. It's neither here nor there, but the mayor really needs to practice reading from a script.

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