After the Court of Criminal Appeals struck down a key provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, a bipartisan team of legislators is working together to restore it.
Republican State Rep. Dade Phelan (Beaumont) and Democrat State Sen. Kirk Watson (Austin) have filed identical legislation, House Bill 3402 and Senate Bill 1640, to restore the state’s prohibition on “walking quorums.”
The statute, as currently written, states:
A member or group of members of a governmental body commits an offense if the member or group of members knowingly conspires to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations in violation of this chapter.
That language, however, was ruled unconstitutionally vague by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last week after a challenge by Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who had been accused of violating the law. The new legislation would replace the phrases deemed vague by the court with more precise and intent-based language:
A member of a governmental body commits an offense if the member knowingly engages in at least one among a series of communications that each occur outside of an open meeting concerning any public business of the governmental body where individual communications are among fewer than a quorum of members.
The bills’ authors say the new language will not only address constitutional concerns, but it will also help governmental actors better understand the boundaries of the law.
“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” said Watson. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”
Phelan, who chairs the House State Affairs committee, agreed.
“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Chairman Phelan said. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”