Back in 2004, the district attorney in Brewster County indicted two members of the Alpine City Council for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. The act, initially passed in 1967 and enhanced after the Sharpstown scandal of the early 1970s, requires that — with very limited exceptions — all meetings of a governmental body be open to the public.
The council members privately exchanged a series of e-mails discussing city business. The DA eventually dropped the indictments. But one of the members, along with a third who received immunity in the case, filed a lawsuit challenging the open meetings act as being unconstitutionally vague and stifling of free speech.
The act has been an important tool for good government in Texas. The challenge, if upheld, would have turned back the clock on transparency and accountability.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Robert Junell ruled against the plaintiffs. "The Texas Open Meetings Act does not impede the freedom of speech," his opinion read. "The act simply requires speech to be made openly, and in the presence of interested public, as opposed to behind closed doors.?." In September, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans dismissed the case.
Open government foes are now turning their sights on the Legislature. As Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association, explained in a recent op-ed in the Express-News, the Texas Municipal League representing 1,100 member cities passed a resolution last month to support changes that would lessen the penalties for violations of the open meetings act.
The penalties are what make elected officials sit up and pay attention to the act's requirements. Soften the penalties and the act becomes toothless. What makes this effort more egregious, as Hartman pointed out, is that the Texas Municipal League is a lobbying organization that is funded with taxpayer dollars.
No doubt, the open meetings act creates burdensome requirements for governmental officials. How much easier it would be to make appointments and award contracts without the public's prying eyes.
Those requirements, however, are ones that good public servants should respect, not fight. The Legislature should resist any effort to change laws that have well served the cause of good government in Texas for four decades.-
—San Antonio Express News