AP NEWS

Phelan is stepping up with open meetings bill

March 24, 2019

State Rep. Dade Phelan has already had one of the most productive legislative sessions in some time for a local lawmaker, but he’s not letting up at the halfway point. Phelan had the motivation — and the honor — of being the House sponsor of an important bipartisan bill that will restore an important provision of the Open Meetings Act that was undermined by a recent court ruling.

Phelan, R-Beaumont, in the House and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, in the Senate have filed identical bills that would restore the so-called “walking quorum” provision of state law. Their bills (HB 3402 and SB 1640) would prohibit members of public boards from meeting secretly in small groups to discuss public business. Instead, board members would have to follow a practice that helps taxpayers keep tabs on them — gathering in posted, public meetings with a quorum, and then discussing the public’s business in public.

This is the way city councils and school boards have operated for years, and it represents basic transparency and accountability. Taxpayers know what is happening with their tax dollars. They can follow the twists and turns of a complex issue — or any issue, frankly — instead of seeing board members vote unanimously on something with little or no public discussion.

When that happens, you can bet that board members did discuss the issue — secretly and illegally. But they did so without those nosy taxpayers and reporters keeping up with them. That’s just not the way a democracy should operate.

Those illegal discussions had been banned for decades, even though some of them occurred anyway. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned a key portion of this law recently because the judges felt it was too vague. It was a sad example of a top court putting the convenience of public officials ahead of the interests of the taxpayers they serve. There’s nothing “vague” or difficult about discussing the public’s business in public at open meetings.

Phelan is chairman of the influential House State Affairs Committee, and his support for this bill gives it an extra boost despite being filed relatively late in the legislative session. House and Senate members should discuss these bills and find a way to restore these basic safeguards.

The Texas Public Information Act is pretty strong, better than similar laws in other states. But it has been chipped away over the years with court rulings like this, and lawmakers must respond when that happens. This is one of those occasions, and the closing gavel must not bang down on the 86th Legislature without this fix heading toward the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott.