It took a visiting judge to call out local officials for failing to be accountable to their constituents.
Judge Robert Pate last week ordered Brownsville’s mayor, city secretary and all members of the City Commission to take a state certification course on the Texas Open Meetings Act by today. Pace is presiding over a lawsuit waste disposal company Brownsville GMS filed against the city after it nullified a 2016 waste collection contract and sought to switch to another company. The moves were made without public hearings or votes, which are required by law.
According to court testimony, the city accepted GMS’ bid for the contract in 2016, then voted to reject it in March 2017. On Feb. 5 of this year they voted to enter into a contract with another company. They voted with no discussion, and testimony revealed that they had heard a presentation from the other company in executive session, instead of in a public hearing. The officials then scheduled a final vote to take on the new company on May 7, but as a consent agenda item, meaning they could vote without any discussion, with no public input.
The judge called the whole process “fundamentally wrong.”
“This is a textbook case of how NOT to handle the public’s business,” said Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association. The Texas Open Meetings Act clearly spells out procedures for public meeting agendas, as well as acceptable reasons to discuss items in executive session. The council either didn’t understand the law or didn’t care.
“Elected officials take an oath to follow the law, and they should be held accountable for breaking it. The judge’s order for them to attend training is a good first step.”
The officials should have taken the course already. Section 551.005 of the Texas Government Code mandates that all officials who participate in meetings subject to the Open Meetings Act must take the certification course within 90 days of taking office.
Most of the commission members have held their positions for several four-year terms.
The state makes the course easy to take; officials — and anyone, actually — can simply go to the Texas secretary of state’s website, view a few videos and answer a few questions. If they pass they can immediately print out their certificate.
More detailed instruction on open meetings is also easily accessible.
“We at the FOI Foundation along with the attorney general’s office held free open government training in Brownsville last fall, coordinated with the city secretary’s office,” Kelly Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, pointed out. “Many city employees attended. It could have been great to have more elected officials there.”
Many officials never take the course, despite the legal mandate. Unfortunately, it’s never enforced, and officials quickly learn that they can ignore the requirement with impunity.
Brownsville residents should be glad that a judge chose to provide that enforcement. We hope the officials learn better how they’re supposed to do their jobs. It’s knowledge they should have acquired years ago.