Good news for taxpayers in Texas! Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the Texas Open Meetings Act. This is no small thing; for awhile now, the Open Meetings Act has been under attack from a number of local governments across the state, and (of course), the Texas Municipal League.
The court is explicit in backing the law, stating that it “requires disclosure rather than restricts speech.” The local government officials who have been challenging the law disagree; they believe the statute is harmful because there is a penalty for violation of the Open Meetings Act ($100 to $500 fine and up to six months’ jail time), and that it restricts what local government officials may discuss outside of regular meetings. They are, essentially, worried that social media may land them in hot water. But that argument proved weak as the three-judge panel wrote in the 17-page decision that the law is not “vague or overbroad,” that the law defines what meetings are and how it should be applied at those meetings, and they were firm in the conviction that the law does not restrict speech content at all.
The Texas Attorney General provides an Open Meetings Handbook for local government officials, a wonderful resource for the citizenry as well as it makes clear what meetings qualify for this law. In case you’re wondering, the law is essentially this: Texas Government Code, Sec. 551.002. OPEN MEETINGS REQUIREMENT. Every regular, special, or called meeting of a governmental body shall be open to the public, except as provided by this chapter. There are caveats and qualifications, but the spirit of that statement remains intact throughout. You can read the entire thing online.
In spite of today’s decision and the Open Meetings Act itself, local governments still find ways to shut taxpayers out of the process; many of us have sat through trustee and council meetings where the most hotly contested items are pushed to the end of an evening meeting, in hopes that the opposition might tire and leave. We’ve searched all over local government websites looking for a clear, easy-to-read budget, never to find one. To this day, the only places where some local government meetings need to be announced are on the county courthouse doors or bulletin board and the local newspaper (where of course, the information is buried on page 9 after an ad spread). Transparency in government, even in Texas, has a long way to go.
Still, there’s this victory to celebrate – the Texas Open Meetings Act has been deemed constitutional, and the cries of local government officials reduced to playground-esque cries of “it’s not fair!” I’d say that was a good day in court for Texas taxpayers.