Open meetings

TML wants to weaken law, make deliberations more secret

This editorial was written by Bill Hobby, former lieutenant of governor of Texas.

In Texas the law is clear. Governing bodies must conduct the people's business in public or face some serious penalties.

This statute has protected the public and elected representatives alike for the past 42 years with a basic premise: public bodies should deliberate in public.

The days of making backroom good ol' boy deals in private are a thing of the past because the Texas Legislature outlawed them with the Open Meetings Act of 1967, and strengthened that law in 1973 after the infamous "Sharpstown Scandal."

Yet, there are some serious and troubling attempts under way that could open the door for that very thing to occur. At least three Texas cities and the Texas Municipal League (TML) are endorsing a legal challenge in the courts that will render Texas' Open Meetings laws ineffective.

TML, which is supported by your tax money in the form of membership fees, is urging more than 1,100 Texas cities to sign on to a federal lawsuit.

These public officials claim the Texas Open Meetings Act unconstitutionally restricts their right of free speech under the First Amendment.

Of course, they are free to say anything they wish to anyone they wish at any time they wish. However, when they are meeting as a quorum of a governmental body, they must say it in front of the public at an open meeting.

Even more importantly, the First Amendment cannot be a shield to prevent accountability of public officials, but guarantees access to the workings of these governmental bodies, just like it does to our courts.

TML wants criminal penalties, such as jail time, stripped from the law that has protected the public for more than four decades.

In other words, if public officials break the law in the future by conducting business in secret—exercising their "rights to free speech" behind closed doors—a slap on the wrist should be punishment enough.

As a member of the public, I am left confused by what is happening, and why. But I do know this. I don't want elected officials to get too comfortable either because I have seen first hand what can happen if they do.

I hope you will join me in supporting the idea that the Open Meetings Act should be left intact and open government, without any strings attached, should continue to be the law in Texas.

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2009-12-03 digital edition

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