It is not against the law for city council members to be at meetings together.
Let’s get that straight right from the beginning. And, when a quorum is going to be present – at any event – it is good for the city secretary or whoever is in charge to post the meeting, so that the general public knows that council members are present.
But, there are always circumstances when a quorum of council members might be present at an event – whether a meeting of an advisory council, as happened recently in Kyle, or at a local wedding.
These things happen in small towns.
The problem, though, lies when a meeting is not posted and council members speak out on their views.
Why is this a problem? Because then the other council members hear views and know how that particular member will vote.
That is what occurred at a meeting of the Mobility Advisory Committee for the city of Kyle a few weeks ago.
It was an accident. A newly elected councilmember answered a question from the audience and gave her opinion. Oops.
It is an innocent mistake, and we are sure that she will not do that again. We hope lesson learned. Let’s all acknowledge this mishap and move on.
The city staff has also learned a lesson. If they think a quorum of the council will be present – and even if the city secretary is on vacation and doesn’t get the meeting officially posted – then someone on city staff needs to make sure the public is informed that a quorum of the council will be present. Lesson learned.
We do not think Kyle city council members were trying to overtly break the law, nor were they making decisions behind closed doors.
Because that is really against the law. The Texas Open Meetings Act has very distinct regulations and penalties about what can and cannot be said behind closed doors and out of public perusal.
Council members cannot talk in executive session about subjects that should be in the open and fully attended by any resident who wants to hear the goings-on. Only a few things can be discussed in executive session, mainly litigation, personnel issues dealing with an individual employee – not a class of employees, and real estate purchases. Why? Because the public pays the bill. Residents need and want to know how their taxes are being spent and what is going on in their city.
Nor can council members do what is called a “walking quorum,” wherein they talk one-on-one, and pass that message along. That is discussion about city business that is not in full view of the public.
Nor can they whisper and talk together at public meetings – whether posted or not – because discussion of public matters need to be just that – made in public. Best to sit apart.
Nor can council members email or text about city business to each other, discussing their opinions. Again, the public has the right to know.
No, Kyle’s councilmembers probably didn’t mean to break the law. On this particular item, they didn’t talk behind closed doors, they didn’t text each other, they weren’t participating in a “walking quorum.”
It was an innocent comment by a new member that caused the law to be broken. It was a mistake that should never again be repeated.
We hope the lesson has been learned.