Hushed voices. Furtive glances. Covert meetings. Secrecy might be appropriate for an Orwellian novel, but there is no place for it in city government – at least according to Texas law.
During an Abilene City Council meeting Nov. 18, council members discussed joining 15 other Texas cities in a lawsuit that challenges the Texas Open Meetings Act. The council eventually decided to table the issue, choosing not to vote either way until new information arises.
Abilene city attorney Daniel Santee said the law – and the lawsuit – boils down to the First Amendment.
The controversy began in 2004, when Alpine City Council members were indicted for breaking the open meetings law by sending e-mails to each other about a pending issue. Though the case was dismissed, they filed a lawsuit – which other cities have joined – claiming the law violates the free speech rights of elected officials and the potential punishments are too great.
The council members argued the actions taken against them infringed on their First Amendment rights to free speech; however, the members gave up those rights when they were elected as public officials.
The Open Meetings Act keeps the public informed and holds the government accountable, something all citizens, including students, should desire. Elected officials have a responsibility to conduct public business in an open forum where voters can observe and comment. Openness fosters trust and, more importantly, furthers democracy.
The council also argued the potential severity of the punishment was too great. However, if punishment didn’t exist, people wouldn’t follow the rules. With a stricter punishment comes a greater effort to follow the rules, and it indicates how seriously we take open government.
In Abilene, Santee said, the council isn’t worried about the law because it isn’t breaking it – and hasn’t in the 30 years since the act took effect. For Abilene council members, public trust in government is worth the risk of jail time, a fact the cities involved in the lawsuit seem to be ignoring.
Besides, making good decisions is easier when several thousand people are watching.
The Texas Open Meetings Act regulates certain types of speech by city council members. Below is a summary of key portions of the law.
– The law prohibits a quorum, or majority, of council members from meeting behind closed doors. This includes physical meetings, e-mail correspondence or phone conversations.
– Council members may talk about litigation in executive session behind closed doors, but any final action must take place in public.
– The law requires councils to post an agenda 72 hours prior to the next meeting.
– Punishment for breaking the law includes a fine of $100-$500 and/or one to six months in county jail.