AP NEWS

Make Open Meetings Act legislative priority

March 13, 2019

Bills filed to restore provisions of the Open Meetings Act struck down by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals merit bipartisan support. To do otherwise is to sanction secrecy, with the public operating in the dark when it comes to public agencies.

The legislation introduced by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, tightens the language in the law that makes it a crime for government officials to meet in small groups to discuss the public’s business through successive meetings. These are often called “walking quorums.”

Earlier this month, the state’s highest criminal appellate court found the section of Texas law dealing with those types of meetings “unconstitutionally vague.” The proposed bills address the issue by including more precise wording to remove any confusion or ambiguity.

In striking down a key provision of the state’s Open Meetings Act and punting the issue to the Legislature, the court dealt a crushing blow to transparency in Texas government. We have witnessed a slow chipping away at Texas’ open meetings and records laws in the courts and the Legislature over the past several years.

Texas open records law took a major hit following in 2015 when a Texas Supreme Court ruling in Boeing v. Paxton expanded on what can be considered a trade secret and can be legally exempt from public access. The Boeing decision allows keeping confidential information about tax dollars spent by private companies doing business with the government.

During the last several sessions, legislation has been passed that limits access to dates of birth in government records and police files that were once considered public. This trend must stop.

In today’s political climate, we need more transparency when it comes to government activities, not less. Regrettably, not everyone is of the same mindset. Every session, there is legislation intended to provide more transparency and give the public better access to public documents, but it often gets held hostage in committee and never gets a vote.

Holding elected officials accountable starts with strong open meeting and open records laws.

The case that prompted this most recent ruling involved a Montgomery County judge, who, as a member of the county Commissioners Court, orchestrated private meetings on a county road project. The decision does not affect secret meetings of a board majority; those meetings remain illegal.

The issue before the state’s highest criminal appellate court dealt with successive meetings with less than a quorum among members of an elected body to discuss public matters to circumvent the Open Meetings Act.

The ruling lifting criminal penalties for violating the spirit of the Texas Open Meeting Act is a powerful disincentive for elected officials to remain transparent about their activities. The majority of elected officials operate in good faith and are open about their work, but there will be others who will push the law to the limits if they can.

The 7-2 court opinion written by Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who was joined in that ruling by Justices Bert Richard and Barbara Parker Hervey of San Antonio, states the section of the law in question is “potentially very broad and lacks any reasonable degree of clarity on what it covers” and to give it a narrow interpretation would constitute legislating from the bench.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” the court said.

The legislation filed by Watson and Phelan must be given priority.