If an elected official discusses public policy on the radio with a quorum of his peers listening; or if that same official runs for re-election and mails a flyer to his constituents and his fellow elected leaders; or if he e-mails a proposed agenda to his peers and requests an open meeting; he is committing a crime in each example.
Part of that paragraph is sheer baloney. The lawsuit is about whether it's okay to have meetings over email with a quorum of elected officials. That includes sending COMMENTS even without a REPLY.
I feel this way. If you want to get elected in order to make decisions about the public, except in rare executive session exceptions, you CONDUCT YOUR BUSINESS AT THE MEETINGS AND DISCUSS IT THERE. There's nothing worse than watching a government entity take a vote almost immediately with little or no discussion. I always wonder, well, are they just dumb and don't see the need to talk about this OR did they ALREADY talk about this somewhere else where we can't hear the deliberations? For executive session material, that's fine. But not for items that ought to be in open session. You want to be able to talk about anything you want with whoever you want. Don't go into public office where you have accountability to the public but go get your own free speech forum.
What the plaintiffs want is nothing less than judicial approval of backroom meetings and under-the-table deals involving public business. They argue, in effect, that secret meetings and private agreements between elected officials are part of their right to free speech protected by the First Amendment.
The Texas Open Meetings Act, adopted in 1967 and sometimes referred to as TOMA, says a quorum of members of an elected body may not discuss public business unless they publish a notice of the meeting ahead of time (usually 72 hours) and allow the public to attend and listen.
"Rolling meetings," a series of conversations on a specific topic involving less than a quorum of members but adding up to a quorum when all of the conversations are considered together, also are illegal.
There's also a short recap of the two related lawsuits that deal with whether government officials's free speech rights are being violated if they can't conduct them out of the public eye, example, over email.
Councilman LeBlanc. Apparently you missed the fact that I am referring to the article you mention. The same link is in the very first sentence.
I went down to Austin to hear a Texas Senate meeting regarding these issues. What I heard was that open meeting violations enforcement is almost nil and that maybe one person has been prosecuted for violating the act. The initial complaint started when Alpine officials conversed over email about an upcoming meeting. As I understand it, it wasn't asking to have something put on the agenda, so that it could BE DISCUSSED in the meeting as called before the public. That certainly didn't curtail anyone's freedom of speech, just says that if items are going to be talked about, freely, do it in public where the taxpayer can hear. NOT over email.
Then it morphed into the lawsuit that you are part of, that has what I consider, as does the Texas Attorney General, a phoney baloney excuse of your freedom of speech rights being violated because you can't talk with a quorum of people over email.
In December, the new group of plaintiffs — the cities of Alpine, Pflugerville, Big Lake and Rockport, plus 15 individual elected officials — filed suit in a federal court in Pecos alleging the state’s open meetings law infringes on their right to communicate freely with one another. The cities and public officials in City of Alpine v. Wilson are being represented by Rod Ponton and Dick DeGuerin, who also represented the Rangra plaintiffs, free of charge.
“Our lawsuit is not trying to throw out the entire Open Meetings Act,” Ponton told the Austin American-Statesman in October. “We’re only asking to declare unconstitutional the criminal provision that says that council members can’t talk to each other except at a meeting.”
Nobody says that. Sheesh. I've read the TOMA and council members can talk to each other in social settings but not about city business, there's an explanation of a *walking quorum* that makes pretty good sense to me, etc. Again, if you're concerned about talking to others about business, WHY can't you do it at a meeting? In our city, a council person asks to get something on the agenda to be discussed, may do research meanwhile on his or her own, or conversing with another council person not a quorum, and then the city secretary sends out the agenda/meeting notice so that the PUBLIC can go attend and hear the business being discussed. Now THAT's freedom of speech that no one is curtailing, it IS limiting the PLACE where you can do that.
And if there's absolutely no penalty for someone breaking TOMA, what's the point? I think there should not only be the same penalties but there should be MORE enforcement for governmental officials who break the act.
Amazingly, you're on the side of wanting non-transparent meetings and for penalties for breaking the act to go away. Sorry, I can't agree with you. If you dislike the transparency of government so much, go into the private sector.
3 - Councilman Mel LeBlanc
5 Dec 2010 @ 11:36:23 AM
I have never attended a secret meeting, never will, and have never even come close to being a proponent of such, thus your conclusion that "you're on the side of wanting non-transparent meetings" is just as incorrect as when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram put forth the same erroneous statement. I don't know how you arrived at your statement that "the lawsuit is about whether its okay to have meetings over e-mail without a quorum of elected officials" as that is simply not the case. You are welcome to trash me all you want; that's part of being in public office, so please tell me where I've tried to turn this argument into being "all about trashing LeBlanc." Noone, present company included, the Star-Telegram, et al, has commented on the reason I got involved in this: the vagueness of the law creates confusion and an environment where those in positions of authority can use TOMA as a weapon of control and intimidation. TOMA is an admirable law to be protected and secret meetings subvert democracy, I get all that, but it has been emasculated over the years and rendered much less effective than the public deserves.
4 - Councilman Mel LeBlanc
5 Dec 2010 @ 11:40:19 AM
...Oh, and I almost forgot. That Senate meeting that you attended in Austin was not under the jurisdiction of TOMA. You see, the Texas State Legislature that created this law, so necessary to protect our democracy, EXEMPTED THEMSELVES.
@Mr Leblanc. That's exactly the point where i disagree with you. The original case was about email and open meetings. The case that you chose to piggyback yourself onto is a morph of that one, and about freedom of speech and penalties of law. I do not agree that TOMA is used as a weapon of control and intimidation. In fact, I've seen more instances of government entities that try to do their business somewhere else than in a meeting or use executive sessions for non-executive session material. And TOMA used as weapon of control? Isn't ANY law that tries to proscribe people's behaviour controlling and intimidating, and rightly so? Shouldn't someone who is going to rob a bank be intimidated by a law that says if they do they'll be arrested and prosecuted? As I said, IF TOMA was really being enforced, you might have a point, but it actually isn't.
Was speaking rhetorically about secret meetings, a general *you*, didn't say that you peronally attended one. But when you, Mr Leblanc, put yourself on the side of government officials being able to talk about business in a quorum over email (and let's include facebook, twitter, etc in that one) where the public isn't privy to those conversations without extra work for government secretaries and additional possible expense to cull those out, you put yourself on the wrong side. And the Texas AG does not agree with you.
This isn't a a freedom of speech issue either. There are lots of laws in which someone's *place* of free speech is legislated. Doesn't everyone understand that you can't yell "FIRE" in a crowded building?
People have situations put in front of them every day where they have to decide what to do, especially if there is some degree of fuzziness about proper action. It seems pretty clear to me, though, that if you put the public FIRST and avoid talking in any manner, with comments, to a quorum over ANY medium or in any venue, you 'll always do right. If an official isn't sure whether an action might violate TOMA, maybe that official ought to refrain from using that method, and bring up whatever it is in an open meeting.
And I know that the Senate hearing I attended didn't include the legislators in TOMA, but that they have their own separate laws. I certainly don't like it that there's one standard for Texas legislators and another for people in general. However, there were a lot of facets of TOMA that were discussed, including one agenda item from the AG's office, despite the fact that the Senators seemed to be more concerned with keeping their own business private.
AND US District Court Judge (Western District-Pecos) smacks down this ridiculous lawsuit, including what Mr LeBlanc was claiming (Read the PDF here-OAG website)
p 32 "At the bench trial, Plaintiffs Jim Ginnings and Mel LeBlanc testified that TOMA suppresses their speech in social settings. The Court concludes that TOMA does not prevent Plaintiffs from speaking to a quorum of their fellow city council members at a social function that is unrelated to any public business conducted by that city council... This Court further concludes that TOMA is not violated when Plaintiffs and a quorum of their city fellow city council members attend any "regional, state or national convention or workshop, ceremonial event, or press conference", if no formal action is taken or any discussion of public business by that city council "is incidental to the social function, convention, workshop, ceremonial event or press conference".
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