DMN Editorial On Texas Open Meetings Law

 My thoughts?  The Law is broken and no matter how you slice it will be found unconstitutional.  In order to save it it needs to be fixed rather than stick your head in the sand and say that it should be upheld as it is written.  See my previous post on this subject here. 

As anyone who has endured a nine-hour Dallas City Council meeting can attest, open government is messy. And mundane. Some weeks, it’s uncomfortably confrontational. Other meetings make watching paint dry seem action-packed.

In any case, the council does the people’s business in public. As elected officials contemplate how to spend your tax dollars or whether to allow a factory to be built in your neighborhood, they voice their views and cast their votes in open meetings.

Texas law makes sure of it.

The Open Meetings Act helps keep public officials accountable, spelling out prohibitions on secret deliberations. Violating the act is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail.

For city councils and other government bodies, avoiding these consequences is pretty simple: Don’t schedule secret meetings or make decisions behind closed doors.

Amazingly, the Texas Municipal League and some Texas cities have decided that’s too much to ask.

The league, which is funded with taxpayer dollars, has passed a resolution seeking a law that would strip the teeth out of the Open Meetings Act. Additionally, officials from more than a dozen cities across the state plan to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

In both cases, the groups argue that the criminal penalties are too harsh and that preventing public officials from colluding in private somehow restricts their free speech. Of course, arguing that a weak open-meetings law would somehow bolster free speech requires some tortured logic, but that’s their argument, and they’re sticking to it.

Quite simply, these efforts aim to water down the Open Meetings Act by removing the threat of criminal penalties, rendering the law toothless and somewhat pointless.

Supporters of these changes contend that they’re not advocating that government business get done in smoky backrooms. But without legitimate protections in place, some officials could be tempted to take their discussions offline – and out of public view.

Criminal prosecutions under the existing Open Meetings Act are rare, but the penalties on the books serve as an important reminder that government business shouldn’t be kept under wraps.

Taxpayers in every Texas city have a stake in this.

If open-government laws are watered down, public officials could ease down a slippery slope. Conversations among a quorum of council members could easily morph into informal votes and the opportunity to orchestrate the outcome before a public meeting commences.

As city council members hash out the budget, deciding whether to close the library down the street or raise taxes, voters deserve the chance to hear their representative’s thoughts and see how officials voted. If the end result is pre-determined and the actual deliberations are conducted in secret, taxpayers are short-changed.

The promised lawsuit and the Texas Municipal League resolution aim to address a non-existent problem. As long as public officials are willing to do government business in public, what’s there to be afraid of?

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2 responses to “DMN Editorial On Texas Open Meetings Law

  • Randy Leake

    Doug totally agree with you. If it is done openly, honestly and above board there is not a problem. I think you will find that most of our local elected officials do this and make a strong effort to make the others do the same.

    I am totally convinced that my sources are wrong on the selection of The Tandy Gang and the Charter Committee. I feel the decisions have not been made ahead of time with them and this will be a open process.

  • Doug Miller

    I disagree Randy, I think the school board does not operate in an open and above board fashion…

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