The Open Meetings Act (the “Act”) was adopted to help make governmental decision-making accessible to the public. It requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, except for expressly authorized closed sessions,1 and to be preceded by public notice of the time, place, and subject matter of the meeting. “The provisions of [the Act] are mandatory and are to be liberally cons1d in favor of open government.”
Why does this matter? Because quite often the elected government officials in office are making not only financial decisions for citizens but other important decisions that could affect our lives. We who are onlookers who nonetheless want to be civic minded should be able to know when meetings are, what will be on the agenda and be confident that if something isn't on the agenda, it shouldn't be discussed but be put ON the agenda. Again, why? Suppose something is discussed that's not on the agenda and its' something you would like to hear or weigh in on via a public comment. This year at the Texas Legislature, the law was changed to allow public comment on ALL agenda items if a person wants, not simply during a specified public comment section on the agenda. If it's not on the agenda, it is also not likely to be on the official minutes, which are usually brief, and, even if the meeting is recorded on video or audio, who knows to even go watch or hear? Or, an item that you may not care about may be the very thing your neighbor across town wants to be informed about, and would welcome to tell his or her govt official an opinion about.
Elected government officials are required by law to take Texas Open Meetings Act training and to make their certificates available for inspection by the public. This shows that following TOMA is not just a nice thing to try to do, but is on a scale where making sure one is following the law is critical and requires education.
I saw a friend of mine downtown the other day and she told me that a meeting she regularly attends didn't post their agenda for the meeting. It wasn't on the govt website, nor was it posted on the door. That is a violation of TOMA (Texas Open Meetings Act) for some obvious reasons, besdies the fact it's the law to post an agenda 72 hours in advance of a meeting. Why? Because who would even KNOW that there was going to be a meeting? No time to make arrangements to attend or at least know what was on the agenda. Honestly, she could have complained and asked that the meeting be cancelled and rescheduled. Also, more dire, any decisions made at a Texas Open Meeting that violate a law are voided.
I saw a meeting video a couple of years ago which was utterly appalling. A lady attended a Somervell County Hospital District board meeting and was put on the spot with some critical comments JUST FOR BEING THERE.
Who should be responsible at a meeting for ensureing that TOMA rules are followed? Now, every single person on an elected board has been (or is supposed to have been) through training. But if they don't follow the law, shouldn't the person who is running the meeting intervene? Such as with a "Hey, let's not talk about that now, we'll put it on the agenda for next time?"
At the December 5, 2019 meeting, Ron Hankins, who is supposed to be running the Somervell County Hospital District board, allowed two different violations to happen without stepping in. Notice here that Somervell County Hospital District went into executie session and then came out, and, as a quorum, sat and talked about some things about Children's hospital before Ron Hankins called the next item on the agenda. What they were talking about was not on the agenda. Usually what happends is when people go into executive session, and come out, THEN they start the audio or video at the point where they are starting the meeting again. Hankins made a half hearted comment about the video being on, but didn't exercise his authority to start the meeting instead of people talking about other hospitals, which was NOT on the agenda.
Then he allowed another TOMA violation to happen while sitting on his hands.
Ambulance service NOT on the agenda. Why didn't Ron Hankins stop the Margaret Drake and Dr Vacek's conversation? Haven't all 3 of these people taken training and gotten certificates in TOMA and Texas Public Information Act? Why does this matter? Because the public has a right to know what will be discussed, if not something in closed session, so they can decide whether to attend and now, with the changes at the Texas Legislature about comments, could comment on an agenda item. Maybe thre is a citizen who owuld like to discuss ambulance service but s/he would not know about this little side conversation. Shame on Ron Hankins.
There's another facet to this that I find somewhat frustrating and that is what to do when you believe that there is a TOMA violation. Like, the friend who was going to a meeting that had not been posted 72 hours and really should have been cancelled and rescheduled. Do you
file a criminal complaint with the Sheriff's department, as Andy Lucas, the Somervell County Attorney has said he believes the TOMA procedure to be? That is, a person would go to the sheriff's department and file a complaint, which would then be passed on to Lucas or whoever happened to be County Attorney at that point.