Open Meetings Act 101

BY LUPA JERNIGAN

Transparency in government is a topic that has great impact on citizens worldwide.  In the United States we expect a very high level of transparency from our governing officials at all levels.  

According to the Texas Attorney General, our state has great expectations of transparency.  

From the 2014 Handbook on the Open Meetings Act, found on the state attorney general’s website (www.texasattorneygeneral.gov):  “The Texas Open Meetings Act represents a commitment to the people of Texas that the public’s business will be conducted in the open. It is a legal guarantee of a transparent government and one to which I’m committed as attorney general. Our open government laws have long been among the strongest in the nation, and I am proud of my office’s efforts to maintain that strength. With the United States Supreme Court’s affirmation of a key provision of the Open Meetings Act, Texas secures its reputation as a leader in requiring government to be conducted openly.”

The Texas Open Meetings Act ensures transparency in government from the state level all the way down.  

Government officials must make sure that their constituents know what topics are being discussed at meetings and that there is a very limited set of criteria for meetings held behind closed doors.  

Closed door meetings may include topics of conversation that would compromise your city’s ability to negotiate delicate financial matters.  The specifics of what may be considered are discussed at length in the wording of the law and are broken down into more easily understandable terms in the handbook mentioned above.  
Regarding scheduling of a closed meeting:  

“§ 551.101. Requirement to First Convene in Open Meeting If a closed meeting is allowed under this chapter, a governmental body may not conduct the closed meeting unless a quorum of the governmental body first convenes in an open meeting for which notice has been given as provided by this chapter and during which the presiding officer publicly: (1) announces that a closed meeting will be held; and (2) identifies the section or sections of this chapter under which the closed meeting is held.”
In this manner, the public is made aware of what will be discussed and when.  Further, there are provisions in place for disclosure after such meeting has occurred. 
“§ 551.102. Requirement to Vote or Take Final Action in Open Meeting A final action, decision, or vote on a matter deliberated in a closed meeting under this chapter may only be made in an open meeting that is held in compliance with the notice provisions of this chapter.”

The governing body is required to keep record of closed meetings, with strict guidelines concerning how this is to be done as well as under what circumstances those records should be accessed.  

Open meetings also have very specific guidelines around how they are to be scheduled, announced and recorded, the difference being that the public is welcome at open meetings of governing bodies.  City meeting announcements are to be posted as follows:

“§ 551.050. Municipal Governmental Body: Place of Posting Notice 
(a) In this section, “electronic bulletin board” means an electronic communication system that includes a perpetually illuminated screen on which the governmental body can post messages or notices viewable without manipulation by the public. 
(b) A municipal governmental body shall post notice of each meeting on a physical or electronic bulletin board at a place convenient to the public in the city hall.”

These announcements, or agendas, typically contain the specifics of what will be discussed.  There is no requirement for the city to hear input from citizens during these meetings and whether or not they will do so is at the discretion of the mayor.  In order to maintain some structure and avoid chaos, cities will generally require citizens to make their requests to be heard 72 hours in advance of an open meeting.  

This gives the public an opportunity to be heard while preventing the chaos and conflicts that could ensue if someone brought a surprise topic of discussion to the meeting at the last minute.  This structure provides an assurance of fairness and ideally creates balance between the need for everyone to be heard without anyone gaining an unfair advantage.  

These laws and procedures are in place to protect our rights as citizens.  They may not always be convenient to follow or easy to understand from a layperson’s perspective, but as citizens we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about our government from city rules to federal laws.