Open meetings: It’s the law

Residents need and want transparency in their government, because local government affects their lives in many ways.

In order for governments to be transparent, they need to make sure residents know what a council or commission is voting on, and they need to make sure to release requested documents.

Whether through desire to keep a negotiation private or just ignorance of the law, the Kyle City Council was mistaken in coming out of its Sept. 9 executive session and voting without informing the public about the subject.

Let’s make it clear. The Kyle council is not the only governmental body that makes this kind of mistake. It is done all over Texas – by mistake or by ignorance.

But it feels so much closer to home because we know members of the Kyle council and count them as friends. We want the best for our friends, but we also want them to do their best.

So, after watching online Sept. 9 for more than an hour for executive session to be finished, the vote was taken on a serious subject – negotiations regarding the modification of the city ordinance on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, without an indication of the vote subject.

How was the vote worded? “I move take action on items discussed in executive session.” That was all.

A subsequent request for documents regarding the vote in question drew a stall and staff saying, “there’s no documentation.”

What? How on earth was a vote taken?

The problem was resolved several days later when the Kinder Morgan negotiation documents were released.

But the letter of the law does not allow this kind of vote, nor the withholding of documents for several days.

It seems that council members, who we must remember are barely more than volunteers (yes, they get paid a bit, but certainly not enough for the hours spent on the job), need to review the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) or go back to continuing education TOMA classes as required by the attorney general.

In the meantime, here’s a refresher:

Try looking at the TOMA handbook, pp. 26-28. The handbook states that there needs to be a sufficient amount of information so the public knows what subjects will be considered.

Take a look at pages 39-43, which shows that votes must be made in public and must include what is being voted upon. Not just “what was discussed in executive session,” but exactly what is being voted on.

Since the Kyle Council uses Robert’s Rules of Order, the members should remember the rules state “in putting the question the chair should make perfecetly clear what the question is that the assembly is to decide.”

That all makes sense, and we are sure that in the future, what is being voted on will be spelled out. It just makes the taxpayers watching a bit more comfortable about their government and their elected officials.

As for not having documentation about the vote, that doesn’t seem to fly. Former Attorney General Mark White, in his 1979 opinion No. 225 regarding open records, laid out the facts.

Per White, “It is our decision that the minutes are public in whatever form they exist.”

Under no circumstances, unless city staff is – at that very moment – using those notes (let’s say someone is typing them up from a recording), are the minutes to be withheld from public view.

Let’s state that in a simpler form. City minutes are public in whatever form they exist. If the city secretary was using an envelope to take notes, that envelope is a public record. If a spiral note book is being used, that is public. If notes are typed on a laptop, those notes are public. AG White’s opinion was very decisive and strict about what is public, saying that even handwritten notes are subject to public scrutiny.

And those minutes must record the subject and vote on each and every deliberation, and a governmental entity cannot say that it would be 10 days before those can be turned over.

What we are asking is that elected officials need to take seriously exactly what should be said  when actions taken, so that all of us know what is being voted on.

The rest of us – the public watching via video or from the audience – certainly take council decisions seriously as those actions affect our very lives.

Please give us the chance to understand what you are doing. Our taxes, our businesses, our land all depend on what you do.

We applaud you for volunteering for these jobs, and the only way we can support and help you is if we know what is going on. Help us help you, please.

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