EDITORIAL: Closed door meetings are a liability
- By The Paris News Editorial Board
Texas Open Meetings Act exemptions are tools available for use sparingly. They are narrow, and they are specific. They are liabilities for the governments that use them, and should be seen as such because there are criminal provisions for improperly closing the doors to the public.
In reviewing the closed meeting activity of the municipalities in this newspaper’s coverage area, including the Lamar County Commissioner's Court, The Paris News found largely responsible use of the act’s exemptions. The few violations discovered appeared to be misunderstandings of the exemptions used — which itself speaks to the importance of today’s report.
With the goal of education in mind, The Paris News has opted against filing complaints with the Texas Attorney General’s Office about those meetings. Rather, staff writers contacted affected city officials about the findings, and officials in both cities committed to ensuring the subject of potential closed meetings meet the requirements set out in the Open Meetings Act.
In total, area cities and the county’s commissioners closed their doors 63 times in the one year period between July 2018 and June 2019. During that time, some councils closed their meeting doors more often than others, and that was largely a reflection of the business before them. For instance, Clarksville City Council called an executive session 20 times during the year, citing the act’s personnel exemption 18 times. As a result of those meetings, the city hired Julie Arrington as its city manager in May and hired Donald J. Blasingame as its police chief in April.
The Texas Open Meetings Act is not a short piece of literature, nor is it completely easy to understand. It’s importance, however, should not be underestimated — it protects the public’s right to know the business conducted on its behalf. When a meeting is closed, it must be recorded in minutes or by another form, and that record is sealed away for good — not even the members who participated may review them after they leave their position.
The public should always be wary of agenda items that exclude participation. And officials who call for closed meetings should remember that just because the doors can be closed doesn’t mean they have to be — use of the Open Meetings Act exemptions is a choice, not a legal requirement. (Emphasis mine.)
The Paris News Editorial Board publishes editorials on topics of local relevance every Wednesday and Sunday.