AUSTIN (Legal Newsline) — Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday came out in support of legislation that would modernize the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Abbott joined state Sen. Kirk Watson, whose legislation seeks to expand the act by creating a new tool that governmental bodies can use to facilitate electronic communications between board members while still protecting the public’s interest.
“For more than four decades, Texas has had some of the strongest open government laws in the nation. Though these laws continue to protect the transparency that is so vital to democracy, the public always benefits when modern technology is harnessed to make government more accessible,” Abbott said in a statement.
“Today, Sen. Watson has taken a step in that very direction with a common sense proposal to bring the Open Meetings Act into the 21st Century.
“Under this legislation, members of governing boards would be able to exchange thoughts and ideas in an electronic forum that is open and accessible to the public in real-time. Sen. Watson’s proposed legislation would merge open government laws with modern technology and keep Texas government operating in the sunshine and accountable to the public.”
To ensure public business is conducted in an open and transparent manner, Texas’ Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of a state or local governmental body’s board or commission from communicating with their fellow board members unless they are in an open meeting.
As a result, a quorum of the board cannot deliberate electronically, or otherwise, between publicly posted meetings about official business or policy matters.
If enacted into law, Watson’s proposal would give the public greater insight into officials’ thought processes by allowing them to view the open discussions on an official online forum.
Although the bill authorizes communication among board members, they would be limited to that purpose and could not take official action except in a properly posted open meeting.
“Government should function efficiently and effectively, and the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing. No matter where folks fall on the political spectrum, they should agree with both of those statements,” said Watson, a Democrat and former Austin mayor.
“Today, technology is helping put to rest the notion that transparency must be sacrificed in the name of functionality, or vice versa. This innovative bill uses technology to ensure that officials at every level of government can communicate when they need to, and that the public can be in on that conversation.”
Watson’s legislation would impose the following requirements and controls on official message boards:
• The communication must be in writing;
• The writing must be posted to an online message board that is viewable by the public;
• The communication must be displayed in real time and displayed on the online message board for no less than 30 days after the communication is first posted;
• The governmental body may only have one online message board that the governmental body either owns or controls;
• The online message board must be prominently displayed on the governmental body’s primary Internet webpage;
• The online message board may only be used by members of the governmental body and/or its officers;
• A communication that a member of the governmental body removes from an online message board after the 30-day window is subject to the Public Information Act and must be retained for two years; and
• The governmental body may not vote or take any action that is required to be taken at a meeting simply by posting a written communication to an online message board.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.