Monday, September 9, 2013

The Whole World is Listening. If Only Someone Speaks.

State Senator Kirk Watson of Austin is bragging about a bipartisan bill passed by the Texas legislature that allows for the use of electronic message boards to facilitate communication between local government officials like city council members. Watson's bill enables something like a Facebook for local government, where council members can write messages to each other and they can respond to each other electronically, all of it in open threads the public can read. I don't really need to describe how Facebook works, do I?

Why is this a big deal? Previously, such electronic communication between council members was forbidden by the Texas Open Meetings Act, which insists that all group communications take place in public, in posted, open session. The effect of the law is to suppress deliberation, not foster it. Council members can't get together between meetings to discuss issues. They can't send emails copying the full council. They can't even email or talk to each other one-to-one because of the chance that the discussion eventually gets passed one by one to the full council. Such "walking quorums" are also forbidden.

After the jump, what this means for Richardson.

If you follow Richardson City Council meetings, one thing you would not describe them as is deliberative. Take for example, the May, 2013, council meeting at which the council elected the Mayor Pro Tem. Assuming the council members all followed the Texas Open Meetings Act, they had no prior discussions about who they supported for this position. You'd think that decision would get some discussion. Even if the choice were obvious, you'd think the council members would want to say why the choice was obvious. You know the routine -- effusive nominating speeches and seconds. But no. As I reported at the time, "there was one nomination, no discussion and a unanimous vote."

The Richardson City Council prides itself on its team attitude. Signs of disagreement seem to be considered bad form. Either that or everyone has such similar views of government that no discussions are needed. In either case, I'm not sure Watson's bill means anything for Richardson. If the council can pick a Mayor Pro Tem without any discussion, they can probably conduct all of their business without any discussion. There's no need for an electronic message board when the council displays symptoms of groupthink.

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