Editorial Let the sun shine
Texans should demand that state lawmakers pass bills restoring the state’s Open Meetings Act to full strength.
A recent court ruling gashed a hole in the law by making it easier for members of government boards and agencies to make decisions prior to meeting by conferring individually or in small groups that don’t constitute a quorum.
Some Houston ISD trustees were accused of using that tactic in a failed attempt to replace Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan. Five trustees admitted communicating one on one prior to a 5-4 vote in October to fire Lathan, but contended they never met as a group. The decision to replace Lathan was later rescinded while the Texas Education Agency investigated the matter.
The open meetings law prohibits so-called walking quorums, where public officials covertly discuss what they plan to do before taking a public vote. That provision, however, was ruled “unconstitutionally vague” in February by the state Court of Criminal Appeals, which suggested the Legislature fix the problem.
Without that fix, some public officials may view the court ruling as giving them license to ignore the spirit of the Open Meetings Act, said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Fortunately, bills making it clearer that it is illegal for board members to decide public business when a quorum isn’t present have been filed.
Shannon said identical bills sponsored by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, have a good chance of being enacted. “A number of legislators understand the need for open government and did not need to be coerced to support the legislation,” she said.
Texas had one of the strongest open government laws in the country, Shannon said, but it has been eroded by court rulings. That includes the state Supreme Court’s Boeing v. Paxton decision in 2015, which has allowed companies to withhold information concerning government contracts they consider proprietary. Bills to close that loophole filed by Watson and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, should be passed.
Conversely, legislators should not pass a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, which would weaken the 2011 Texas Citizens Participation Act. The so-called anti-SLAPP law is needed. It allows judges to quickly dismiss “strategic lawsuits against public participation” filed by lobbyists, politicians and businesses solely to silence whistleblowers or critics.
How lawmakers vote on these bills will reveal whether they truly believe in transparency. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue; it’s about good government. The public’s business should be conducted in public. Period.