- 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?