Wednesday, January 26, 2011 by Jo Clifton

Open meetings allegations could cause damage to city governance

Over the course of the 30 years that this writer has been watching Austin city politics, there has been no Council that failed to meet together in groups of two or three at various times to discuss their opinions and goals. Though some Council members may not like one another and may therefore meet less often than others, it would be impossible for Council members to even put items on the agenda if they did not occasionally meet and talk.  

 

On Tuesday, The Austin Bulldog, followed by The Austin-American Statesman, reported that a citizen had made a complaint about City Council members meeting in what amount to “rolling quorums” to talk about items on the public agenda prior to actual meetings. The Austin Bulldog reported that such quorums could be in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

 

Gadfly Brian Rodgers of ChangeAustin.org is the complainant in the stories, and he has said that he is the citizen who complained about the alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act to County Attorney David Escamilla.

 

Although Escamilla was not willing to confirm the name of the complainant, he was willing to say that his office is looking into the allegations.

 

Later in the day, the Bulldog announced that Rodgers is no longer considering running for a seat on the City Council this spring, a conclusion many others had already reached.

 

ChangeAustin.org then sent out a press release linking the alleged infractions of the law to their effort to get Mayor Lee Leffingwell to put the issue of single-member districts on the November 2011 ballot. “You thought the political game at City Hall was rigged, right?” was their headline.

 

Rodgers claims he got all the ammunition for his story from a three-hour conversation he had with Council Member Chris Riley, during which time Riley allegedly described how the City Council operates.

 

According to a statement released by Escamilla, “The complaint alleges the Mayor and Council have coordinated a regular series of private gatherings of Council members in numbers less than a quorum to conduct private discussions; thereby avoiding the public notice and meeting requirements of the Act.”

 

Now Rodgers and his group are urging people to contact the City Council to move forward with single-member districts and to contact State legislators to vote in favor of legislation that would require the city to implement single-member districts in 2012. Apparently they believe that such a system would cut down on the amount of “colluding” Council could, or would want to, engage in.

 

However, it is not clear that Council members did anything wrong nor is it clear why Council members would stop talking to one another simply because they were elected as representatives of specific districts.

 

And even if they did, this writer believes that preventing Council members from speaking to one another would be detrimental to the efficiency of city government and could create a more secretive environment at City Hall.

 

As Riley wrote in a statement released Tuesday afternoon:

 

“We have recently been advised by the Austin City Attorney that the practice of conducting individual meetings between Council members does not constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

 

“In my experience, there is absolutely no intent on the part of any member of the Austin City Council to circumvent the Open Meetings Act. I believe strongly in open government, and I know that each of my colleagues shares my commitment to transparency and public process.

 

“In order to do our jobs as Council members, we have to be able to communicate with each other. Just to put an item from Council on the meeting agenda requires the sponsorship of at least two members.

 

“It would deal a severe blow to the effectiveness of local government if elected officials were only able to discuss issues of importance to the community at one weekly public meeting.”

 

Certainly, if Council members stopped meeting with one another, Council communications would either be done more surreptitiously or meetings — which are frequently long and tedious anyway — would be even longer and more tedious. Either way, Austin’s citizens would lose.

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