Governor suspends some Open Meetings Act provisions amid statewide emergency

Precautions fueled by concerns over the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 continue to affect business as usual throughout Texas.

The latest change to the status quo came Monday, when Gov. Greg Abbott approved a request by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to suspend some provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act in order to allow local entities to continue carrying out public business while safeguarding the community’s health.

The new measures will allow public entities to change how they hold open meetings, including by hosting them through telephonic or videoconferencing.

“With today’s action, Texas is reducing non-essential in-person contact for a limited period, while ensuring that state and local government entities continue to work to fulfill necessary functions and with full transparency for the people of Texas,” Abbott said via a news release Monday evening.

The governor’s announcement frees public entities from having to provide a physical location for members of the public to be present for a meeting. Instead, the public may participate remotely, without showing up in person to a city hall, county commissioners’ court chamber, school board room, or other location where governing bodies typically hold open meetings.

If a public entity chooses to utilize the new latitude for open meetings, they must still provide a way for residents to make public comment, “such as a toll-free dial-in number, and that includes as electronic copy of any agenda packet that officials will consider at the meeting,” the release read.

Any such remote meeting must allow for two-way communication between the governing body and the viewing public. The governmental body must also provide the public access to a recording of any meeting conducted in such a manner, the release further read.

For meetings not held via telephonic or videoconferencing, the normal statutes of the Open Meetings Act still apply.

Under the statute, online broadcast of open meetings was only required of a school board of trustees in a district with 10,000 or more students, the governing body of a home-rule municipality with a population of 50,000 or more, or a county commissioners court of a county with a population of at least 125,000. A governing body not meeting those criteria could still voluntarily choose to broadcast their meetings online.

Regardless of the statute’s internet broadcast criteria, all governmental entities were nonetheless required to provide a physical space for members of the public to participate in the meeting.

The statute suspensions will remain in effect until the governor’s March 13 disaster declaration is lifted or expired, or until the Office of the Governor terminates the suspensions, according to a news release from the state Attorney General’s office.

The coronavirus has already had an impact on how one city is conducting its meetings. Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala announced in a statement Monday evening that city commission meetings there would be capped to 50 people. To make up for the diminished capacity in the chamber, which is normally rated to hold 85 people, the city will now livestream meetings on Facebook.

Tuesday night’s regular meeting was the first test of the new procedures, with audience chairs spaced several feet apart in order to better accommodate guidance from the CDC to maintain distance between people.

Public meetings in Mercedes are often well attended by local residents, especially over the course of the last year, during which the city has experienced periods of political turmoil. Asked what would be done if the new 50-person capacity is exceeded, the city manager said people will be asked to help accommodate the continuation of public business by taking turns.

“If there is some people that arrive late and they have an item on the agenda, I guess we will need to ask an individual, and maybe a staff person who may have an item later on on the agenda, to respectfully step outside while this presentation occurs. And then we can rotate back in,” Zavala said during a phone interview just hours before Tuesday’s meeting.

Zavala added that city officials continue to maintain constant contact with county and state officials to stay abreast of continuing coronavirus-fueled changes.

“We are keeping as updated as possible and believe that decisions that have been made thus far are certainly consistent with the CDC guidelines and with what is safe: social distancing, washing hands, things of that sort,” he said.