A reader brought this Dallas Morning News article to my attention today. The article covers a Texas Attorney General Opinion released this month on how vague meeting agenda items do not adequately inform the public. Examples of such agenda items are: "Superintendent's Report," "Mayor's Report, "Chairman's Report" and "Council and Other Reporters," etc.
Here's the AG Opinion, click here. (thanks to everyone who e-mailed it)
MelissaTexas Attorney General Abbott says government meeting agendas need to be specific
10:26 PM CDT on Sunday, October 19, 2008
By JON NIELSEN / The Dallas Morning Newsjnielsen@dallasnews.com
Many of the comments are seemingly harmless – a mention of the school football game or congratulations to a colleague.
But when they come during a government meeting and aren't listed on the agenda, they could be violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, according to an opinion this month from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
The opinion states that posting vague items on a government body's agenda such as "superintendent's report," "mayor's update" or "council and other reports" without detailing the topics to be discussed in those reports doesn't adequately inform the public.
Dave LaBrec, a governmental law attorney for the Dallas firm Strasburger and Price, said the opinion is a win for open government advocates.
"It doesn't matter if you are taking action [on an item]," Mr. LaBrec said. "The criteria is, the public's got a right to know."
Mr. LaBrec said generic agenda items are "not an anomaly."
"There are a lot of public entities around the state that do the same thing and, hopefully, this opinion will cause that approach to change," he said.
At a recent Duncanville City Council meeting, for example, an agenda item simply read "Receive Councilmember Reports." Council member Grady Smithey Jr. used his time to recognize 45 years of marriage to his wife, Judy.
The attorney general's opinion is the first item up for discussion during Duncanville's work session on Tuesday.
Other Texas governmental bodies, including Rockwall, Plano ISD, Irving and McKinney, also list agenda items that offer no hint to their content.
Pete Eckert, the city attorney in Rockwall, said his city will fine-tune its future agendas.
"It doesn't require much adjustment, but we will make what adjustments are now required," said Mr. Eckert, who is also the attorney for several smaller area communities.
Some cities do, however, get it right.
The Arlington City Council's agenda for this week, for example, lists discussion of informal staff reports. The agenda then lists the topics of those reports, including financial policies, residential property uses and coupons for reduced animal services fees.
"We try to do the agenda, not only for the public to know, but it's kind of like a script for the council members to follow," Arlington city attorney Jay Doegey said. "If it's too cryptic, they want to know what it is."The attorney general's decision comes after an inquiry concerning the Corpus Christi City Council, which included agenda items such as "city manager's report" without any details on their content. "The general and generic nature of the notice does not sufficiently notify a reader, as a member of the interested public, of the subjects of the update and reports to be discussed," Mr. Abbott said in the opinion.
Agendas must include the subjects of items for discussion, even if the governmental body doesn't take action on them, the opinion states. If someone asks about a topic not on the agenda, officials can respond only by reciting existing policy or stating "specific factual information," according to the law. They can also decide to put it on a future agenda for discussion.
Katherine Garner, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said that anyone can file a lawsuit in the appropriate county or district court against a governmental body for violating the open meetings act.
Mr. Eckert said the law's intention is to keep citizens informed about how their tax dollars work.