Saturday, January 24, 2009

Legality of “Baby Commissioners Court” Questioned by Morrison

It’s all here at FortBendNow, and in a related older article at The Chron.

Newly-seated Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison has instructed his staffers, all formerly serving under Morrison’s predecessor, Republican Tom Stavinoha, not to attend so-called “Baby Commissioners Court” regular Thursday meetings.

These meetings, Morrison says, may be in violation of the Texas’ Open Meetings Act, a law adopted in 1967 and revised in 1973 promotes transparency in state and local government by requiring prior public notice and allowing public attendance of any government meeting with a few notable exceptions.

Chron reporter Zen Zheng, new to the Fort Bend County beat in 2004, reported his amazement when he attended his first Commissioners Court meeting, amazement that the meeting took place so quickly and with little or no discussion of agenda items.
"In my many years of coverage of government meetings in different municipalities and counties for the Chronicle, I had rarely come across one that would be over before the ink in my notepad dried up. Bureaucratic discourses sometimes dragged for hours that they brought me to the verge of dozing off.” (But) “when I went to my first Commissioners Court meeting after I took over the Fort Bend beat 2 1/2 years ago, I was ill-prepared for what I was about to experience. There was little to none discussion on most of the items on the multiple-page meeting agenda …”
This, Morrison reports, is because agenda items for the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting are combed through by the Commissioners’ staffers the Thursday before, as explained by County Attorney Cordes “to provide county staff members with an opportunity to go over the usually lengthy agenda for each Commissioners Court session with an eye toward ‘administrative completeness.’”

This is not what Democratic County Commissioner Grady Prestage recalls.
“Prestage said the meetings began in the mid 1990s, when new state law had been created involving the legal concept of “taking,” or reducing the value of a business through some type of action. Then chaired by the county attorney, the meetings were meant to comb through the Commissioners Court agenda to make sure no action was forthcoming that could be construed to run afoul of the new legislative regulations.”
Continuing, Prestage disclosed that “’it morphed into a meeting to insure that all the information is available so we can make decisions’ efficiently during Tuesday Commissioners Court sessions.”

But now there is a question whether these meetings violate the Open Meetings Act, and whether conducting these meetings opens up the county government to being sued by someone who suffers a loss because of actions that take place behind closed doors at the Thursday meetings.
“…after some controversial decision by the Commissioners Court - such as changing the tax rate - some person or business with significant money at stake could institute legal action and elicit testimony from staff members who attend the Thursday sessions, which might suggest to a court that the Open Meetings Act had been breached. Under such circumstances, action taken in a subsequent open Commissioners Court session conceivably could be voided.”
Now while County Attorney Cordes claims that “that the meetings are conducted in such a way that they don’t violate the Open Meeting Act,” without really giving explanation of what this “way” is I have to wonder it the County Attorney is looking out for the best interests of county taxpayers, or just defending a procedure that allows County Commissioners to spend less time in Court and more time on the Course.

First of all, a meeting of these staffers can be considered as a government body in the strict definition of the Open Meeting Act. From Section 5:
“’Governmental body’ means:
(A) a board, commission, department, committee, or agency within the executive or legislative branch of state government that is directed by one or more elected or appointed members;
Emphasis is mine.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the actions, or perhaps more to the point, the lack of discussion that takes place at the Tuesday Commissioners Court meetings contradict Attorney Cordes’ claims.

From Section 5 E on “Advisory Bodies”:
However, if a governmental body that has established an advisory committee routinely adopts, or “rubber stamps,” the advisory committee’s recommendations, the committee probably will be considered to be a governmental body subject to the Act.
The very fact that a Commissioners Court meeting fairly flies through the lengthy weekly agenda is credible evidence that rubber stamps are in full use by the Commissioners.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As long as GA sits in Austin you won't see any boat rocking for the voters.