Indictments dropped in EDC case
A week after an appeals court ruling undercut a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, the 185th District Court has dismissed charges against six current and former members of Pasadena’s economic development corporation who had been accused of trying to skirt that portion of the law.
Jimmy Ardoin, a Houston attorney representing one of the six, EDC board member Emilio Carmona, lauded Tuesday’s indictment dismissals, saying the “walking quorum” rule on which the charges had been based were too vague and “so broad that it encompasses political speech.”
“There was no violation of the statute anyway,” Ardoin said.
Others who had been indicted for holding two private meetings with a contractor in November 2016 were corporation board member Ernesto Paredes, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris. They were accused of violating the law by intentionally dividing the board into two groups to meet separately with the contractor to avoid having a quorum that would trigger public meeting requirements.
In the meantime, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, are working to restore the provision of the Open Meetings Act that was struck down by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, saying they will reword the “walking quorum” provision to be more precise.
As written, the act makes it illegal for members of a government body to “knowingly conspire to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.”
On Nov. 28, 2016, the six who were indicted, who were then all on the Pasadena board, met twice with engineering firm Civil Concepts about potential designs for a new civic center.
Said Mease’s attorney Stanley Schneider: “Roy Mease and the others did nothing wrong. They shouldn’t have been prosecuted. It was just information being gathered. The open meetings law is to prevent secret meetings and secret votes. It’s not to prevent (government officials) from getting information.”
“They were looking at presentations,” Ardoin said. “There was no vote and no intention to violate the Texas Open Meetings Act.”
“Why are we criminalizing the first amendment?” he said of the former indictments.
The appeals court felt the same way about the “walking quorum” prohibition, saying it was “unconstitutionally vague on its face.”
But in a press release, Watson said, “Without some kind of ‘walking quorum’ prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”
Phelan echoed Watson, saying “if we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny (Texans) the open government they deserve.”
“We respectfully disagree with the Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling,” said Joe Larsen, a board member on the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“This is a case that could be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.