Monday, November 21, 2011

Open Meetings Act, Not So Bad After All

I've long had a grudge against the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). Not with the intent behind the act -- open meetings -- but with the unintended consequences of the act. Two clauses of the act, each fine by itself, work together to suppress open discussion.
  • Meeting agendas must be posted 72 hours in advance
  • Public officials may not discuss subjects not on the agenda

After the jump, the harm these rules cause and a possible solution.

The way this plays out in practice is that week after week citizens traipse to the microphone during so-called visitors section of Richardson City Council meetings, make a heartfelt appeal to the council members, either a request or a complaint or a suggestion, then watch as the council members respond with ... silence. Council members are legally prohibited from discussing topics not on the agenda, except for responding to inquiries with statements of fact or recitations of existing policy. Is it any wonder that citizens not familiar with this ritual leave the council chambers thinking that their city council doesn't listen to them or maybe doesn't care?

Slap! (sound of open palm hitting forehead). It occurs to me how we can both live up to the letter and spirit of the open meetings act without having it be, in practice, a gag order on useful discussion during those open meetings.

The current practice is for citizens who want to address the council to write their name and address on a card and submit to the city secretary before the meeting. How about if the city allows citizens to submit those cards, including the subject they want to discuss, the week before the meeting, specifically, more than 72 hours before the meeting? Then, the subject of the citizen's input can be included in the posted agenda and, when the citizen speaks, council members will be legally free to engage the citizen's concern, ask questions, brainstorm remedies, maybe even resolve the issue then and there.

This should be an option, not a new requirement. Council members could continue to sit silently like bumps on a log, if they wanted. But they couldn't use state law as an excuse for doing so. And citizens with last-minute inputs should still be allowed to submit those cards right before the meeting, as now, if they don't mind that the council members will be prohibited from discussing the subject because it wasn't on the posted agenda.

It turns out I was too hard on the Texas Open Meetings Act, at least as it pertains to discussions during open meetings. It is not as big a barrier to  two-way dialog between the citizens and the city council as I had thought. Such dialog is one of the city council's recently adopted goals for 2011-2013: "To foster a meaningful flow of information and two-way dialogue with key stakeholders." Here's a simple change that would make a real step in that direction. How about it, Richardson?

1 comment:

Nathan Morgan said...

Good idea, Mark. Like I said earlier, we need more thinkers like you.

You may have crossed over the divide between the so-called "gotcha gang" and Coalition.

City Management has ruled with an iron fist in the area of setting the agenda, even though the Charter does not bestow the responsibility to the office.

The practice has simply become accepted by the Council over the years of the current top employee being on staff. It eventually became institutionalized to the point that the (fill in the blank) employee refuses to act on the wishes of the (fill in the blank) employer.

Any normal employee would be looking for a job. But, somehow this one has managed to bully his way with the Council.

This is exactly the reason that the Charter mandates that the Council cannot contract with anyone to serve as City Manager for more than 2 years at a time.

When the previous Council secretly (no agenda item, no vote) gave Bill Keffler a 5 year employment arrangement, they imposed their choice of City Manager on the citizenry and Council of today.

This episode in Richardson City Council history is yet another example of the struggles the good people of Richardson have endured with their Representatives on Council.