In January, former Richardson ISD trustee David Tyson sued the RISD over its at-large voting system, claiming it is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). While that case is still pending, David Tyson struck again, filing yet another lawsuit last week.
According to the Lake Highlands Advocate, Tyson filed a lawsuit alleging that the RISD school board violates the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) by participating in secret meetings outside of public school board meetings. According to the Advocate, Tyson accuses the trustees of holding "private ‘mini-sessions’ of two or three trustees," followed by electronic communications with non-attending trustees to reach consensus. Such a series of deliberations outside of a posted meeting can legally constitute a quorum of the board, even if enough board members to constitute a quorum is never physically present at any one time and place. Such discussions are known as "walking quorums". The TOMA prohibits walking quorums, requiring that all deliberations by any quorum of a government body be held in a posted public meeting.
Before we get to that, let's discuss the lawsuit that isn't settled yet, the one in which Tyson claims that RISD's at-large voting system violates the federal Voting Rights Act. Tyson's new lawsuit could be a sign that negotiations with the RISD over that VRA lawsuit have broken down. Tyson's TOMA lawsuit could be intended to apply pressure on RISD to settle the VRA lawsuit. Why haven't the RISD and Tyson settled already? Beats me. It seems to me that without a negotiated settlement, there are three ways this can play out — all of them bad (in my opinion). First, RISD can win the case and elections remain the same (bad for everyone because the existing method is obviously not resulting in a board as diverse as the district is). Or second, Tyson can win the case and force RISD to adopt single member districts (bad because I think there's an alternative, cumulative voting, that would be more likely to promote diversity without division). Third, the judge could decide it by picking his own solution (bad because any time two parties can settle a dispute between themselves, the more likely both will be satisfied). In any case, the new lawsuit doesn't give me good feelings about how the old lawsuit is going for either side.
OK, let's move on to the new case. Does Tyson have a point? Quite possibly. I've long been puzzled how the RISD board of trustees and the City of Richardson city council can run meetings as they do without some kind of previous private deliberations going on. It starts with the lack of public deliberations to put things on the agenda. They just appear. Other things don't. Where is the discussion happening where such decisions are made? From what I see and hear, it's not happening in open session.
By the way, it's not the unanimous votes that look suspicious to me. It's obvious to me that both the city's and school district's at-large voting systems pack those government bodies with like-minded elected officials. Unanimous votes aren't evidence of a conspiracy. It's just what I would expect given the at-large voting system. Unanimous votes are not a violation of the VRA.
Proving that private deliberations are happening, perhaps via illegal walking quorums, is another matter. In RISD's case, Tyson, as a former trustee himself, is in an ideal position to have evidence, especially if he admits that he himself was a party to these private meetings while he served on the RISD board. He also could be in a position to have more recent evidence of conversations with school board members over his VRA lawsuit that shows that the trustees have been talking to each other outside of posted meetings. And if he has emails with board members that the board members themselves cannot turn over, it may be evidence of his charge that the board members are illegally destroying such records. In short, Tyson is in position to bring such a charge and make it stick, if his accusation has merit.
If so, then what? I doubt that the second lawsuit will affect the first. And even if a judge decides in the second lawsuit that the RISD board, did in fact, conduct illegal private meetings, it would be surprising (to me, a non-lawyer) if the punishment undoes any actions the RISD has taken. A scolding, maybe even a fine, followed by a promise not to sin again, is a possible outcome. That is, if Tyson has evidence to make the charge stick. But the outcome I would like to see is for Tyson and the RISD to go back to the negotiating table on the first lawsuit and come up with a solution that satisfies both parties and then for Tyson to agree to drop the second lawsuit. But that's probably wishful thinking. In any case, the stakes have just been raised.