Monday, August 6, 2012

Dallas Morning News editorial explains why Texas Open Meetings Act matters

The editorial below was published in the Dallas Morning News on Friday, August 3, 2012. It deals with potential violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by various public elected officials. The full editorial is available at this link:

Editorial: Why the Texas Open Meetings Act matters

Ben Torres/Special Contributor
New Dallas ISD trustee Elizabeth Jones, left, on the board during a Dallas ISD board meeting in May. 
There are lots of legitimate reasons for elected officials to conduct the public’s business behind closed doors. Those reasons, clearly outlined in the Texas Open Meetings Act, include discussions of personnel issues, contract negotiations and pending litigation.
But there’s no provision for this: Exclude the public whenever you need to discuss politically uncomfortable or embarrassing issues.

Several recent executive sessions by the Dallas City Council and DISD board of trustees indicate that both groups need a reminder: Obey the law and don’t hold closed-door discussions unless the law specifically calls for it.

Whenever elected officials plan private sessions, they are required to publicly state the legal justification for excluding the public. Whenever a vote is required on any item discussed behind closed doors, that vote must occur in public.

On June 4, Dallas City Council members convened a closed-door session for a Power Point briefing about housing for the poor — a controversial matter that was the subject of a recent court battle involving low-income housing tax credits. The stated reason for excluding the public was to receive legal advice. But it is clear from the contents of the Power Point that large portions of the briefing should have been open to the public.

How do we know? Because Bob Stimson, president of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, obtained a copy of the Power Point through a Freedom of Information Act request. By handing it over, the city tacitly admitted it should not have been kept secret in the first place.
In Farmers Branch, that city agreed Thursday to a settlement, which includes paying $650,000 in attorney fees, for an alleged meetings act violation.

It should not require a lawsuit — or a reminder from the newspaper — to get a city council to obey the law.

Likewise, an open meetings act violation by the DISD board has become evident amid sparring over racially tinged remarks allegedly made between trustees Mike Morath and Nancy Bingham in a recorded phone conversation referring to trustee Bernadette Nutall.

Various trustees are treating the incident as secret because they discussed it in closed session, but there was no clear legal justification for having discussed the issue in closed session to begin with. Trustees seem to be seeking the broadest possible interpretation of the law to avoid embarrassment and evade public scrutiny and controversy.

One elected public official’s offensive remarks about a colleague don’t suddenly justify excluding the public when grievances are aired. In fact, this is exactly when the public has both a need and a right to be in the room.


Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, a “government body” such as a city council or school board may exclude the public when discussions involve:

Consultation with an attorney to discuss pending litigation or a settlement offer.

Deliberation regarding the purchase, exchange, lease or valuation of real estate.
Deliberation regarding a prospective gift.

Personnel matters such as employee discipline, evaluation or reassignment or to hear complaints or charges against an officer or employee.

The Texas attorney general website states that the Open Meetings Act “does not prohibit members of the governmental body or other persons who attend an executive session from making public statements about the subject matter of the executive session.”