Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Richardson Selects a Mayor

Last night, while most Richardson residents were home watching the Dallas Mavericks play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of their NBA Western Conference Championship series, a large number of civic-minded citizens were waiting in the Richardson City Council chambers like expectant fathers. They passed the time by relaying the basketball score while waiting for news of the arrival of Richardson's next mayor.

Richardson has an unusual way of choosing its Mayor. The voters don't do it. The voters elect seven members of the City Council. After being sworn in, the first act of the new council is to elect one of themselves Mayor and another Mayor Pro Tem. The official vote is done in open session, but it's preceded by a closed executive session during which the new council deliberates.

Earlier, I discussed the pros and cons of having the City Council select the Mayor as opposed of having the voters do it. Here, I want to discuss the pros and cons of the City Council doing it in a closed, executive session.

After the jump, is this a good idea?

In a word, yes. I know that so-called smoke-filled rooms and back-room deals have a bad reputation. The Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) is intended to limit abuses and ensure that government is open and accessible to the public. But the TOMA makes explicit allowance for closed meetings to deliberate the appointment of a public officer. In Richardson, the Mayor is a public officer appointed by the City Council. So, Richardson's City Council is acting within the letter and spirit of the Texas Open Meetings Act when it convenes in closed session to deliberate the appointment of the Mayor.

What are the benefits of making this exception to the requirement of open meetings? The primary benefit is that the practice usually results in the city council unanimously standing behind one of its members as the official head of government of the city. That strengthens the Mayor's reputation in dealings with state and county government, other cities, businesses, the press and the public. Because the Mayor represents the City, the City benefits from having a Mayor who can represent the city with a united city council behind him or her.

What is the cost of allowing the City Council to deliberate in closed session? It's the risk of secret quid pro quos, of deals, of promises made in exchange for votes. But arm-twisting is almost always more effectively conducted one-on-one, so this risk is lessened by the fact that all seven council members are meeting together. Abuse is still possible, but that would still be true even if TOMA prohibited closed sessions for deliberating the appointment of the Mayor.

In this case, the benefits outweigh the risks. The authors of the Texas Open Meetings Act recognized this, which is why they carved out an exception for personnel matters such as the appointment of the Mayor.

The new Richardson City Council carried out this ritual of democracy Monday night in the Richardson City Council chambers. Congratulations to new Mayor Bob Townsend and Mayor Pro Tem Laura Maczka. The new council simultaneously honored long service while acknowledging a changing of the guard at city hall. Oh, and we were all home in time to watch the Mavericks come from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-7 series. A very auspicious start for the new city council.

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