West U. Voices Support For Government Transparency
Although the outcome was unexpected after some officials’ comments, the West University Place City Council on Monday sent a message in the wind to affirm its support for open government laws in Texas.
Council Member George Boehme proposed a resolution to support the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires elected officials to conduct business in public by posting notices of meetings and allowing the public to attend. The resolution supports criminal penalties for violations of the law.
Boehme decided to draft support for the open meetings act in light of a Dec. 14 lawsuit by four Texas cities and multiple elected officials statewide that challenges the 42-year-old law.
“We have an opportunity here to stand up for open government, and I think it would be a great move on behalf of this city to stand up for more transparency in government,” Boehme said.
In the lawsuit, the cities and public officials argue that the open meetings law violates their first amendment rights to free speech and that criminal penalties for violating the law should be removed.
The lawsuit stems from a case in 2005 in which the district attorney in charge of Alpine, Texas, indicted four city council members, which constitutes a quorum, for allegedly conducting public business in private in violation of the open meetings act. The council members exchanged multiple emails, which have since been aired in open court. The four officials appeared to agree to hire an engineer for a city project, and decided they would not interview any other applicants. They discussed financing for the project and said that if the chosen engineer performed well, they would use the firm for future city projects.
There is a possibility that the current lawsuit could reach the U.S. Supreme Court because a decision on the case could affect the open meetings laws in multiple states.
Boehme’s support for open government is firmly rooted in his past career. The council member used to be publisher of the Examiner newspaper group, which includes the West University Examiner. Before stepping down to serve as a council member, Boehme was also involved in the founding and operation of InstantNewsWestU.com.
Councilman Steven Segal supported Boehme’s resolution, and he offered an amendment calling upon the Texas Legislature to take another look at the open meetings act to further define and clarify the exact type of behavior that is considered criminal under the law.
Mayor Bob Kelly and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Fry also voiced support for open government, but they questioned whether West U. should take sides in the ongoing lawsuit and whether it was necessary to voice support for laws the city already follows religiously.
“This was not something, to me, that West University had a dog in a fight on,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to pick our fights carefully.”
“I think it’s a waste of time. It’s law, we follow the law. It’s never even occurred to me to do otherwise,” Fry said. “I think this is superfluous, I think it’s a political gimmick.”
Councilman Chuck Guffey questioned whether the criminal penalties imposed by the open meetings act were really necessary. He said he hopes the current lawsuit is successful at making changes to the criminal penalties.
Although comments by Kelly, Fry and Guffey seemed to oppose the open-meetings resolution, it passed anyways in a surprise move when Fry voted “yes.”
“It’s innocuous, it doesn’t mean anything,” Fry said. “It never would have occurred to me we needed to talk about it.”