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City, County Officials to Consider Waivers to Open Meeting Rules

Sunday, March 22, 2020
City, County Officials to Consider Waivers to Open Meeting Rules

While it may not have been as dramatic as school closures or the temporary shuttering of bars and restaurants around the state in light of the COVID-19 threat, Governor Greg Abbott's recent Disaster Declaration also included a less talked about provision that waives a portion of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

That provision is one that requires that the public have real-time access to meetings held by governmental entities such Commissioners Courts, City Councils, School and Hospital District Boards, etc.

In an effort to limit the numbers of those in public gatherings, while still retaining a degree of transparency, Governor Abbott has approved a request by Texas Attorney General Paxton to suspend that portion of the Open Meetings Act, while requiring government bodies to do the following:

1) provide online written notice containing a public toll-free dial-in number or a free-of-charge video conference link, as well as an electronic copy of any agenda packet, before conducting telephonic or video conference meetings;

2) provide the public with access and a means to participate in those meetings, preferably through two-way audio or video connections; and

3) provide the public with access to an audio recording of those meetings.

A quorum need not by physically present as long as those who are absent have access to the telephonic or video conference meeting.

These suspensions are in effect until terminated by the Office of the Governor, or until the Governor's disaster declaration is lifted or expires.

At most such meetings in Seminole and Gaines County, any visiting members of the general public who are not city or county employees are generally the exception to the rule, but the law dictates that all be allowed access to such meetings anyway.

Gaines County Judge Tom Keyes told the Seminole Sentinel that this and other issues related to the Governor's Declaration will be discussed at a special called meeting of the Gaines County Commissioner's Court on Monday, March 23rd.

Seminole Mayor John Belcher said that the City Council could conceivably meet with only the Council present, provided that it met both CDC guidelines regarding "social distancing" in public gatherings, and state law on public meetings requirements.

"This is a very fluid situation," Belcher told the Sentinel. "We just want to be prudent."

The public meetings issue will also likely be one that will be discussed at length by the City Council. Zach Holbrooks, Executive Director of the South Plains Public Health District, is expected to attend both the Commissioner's Court and City Council meetings on Monday prior to any announcement of new policies by the respective bodies.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said that call-in lines from the public should be included, if possible. “If they act in good faith and they follow the law, we feel that transparency and the public’s right to know will still be protected,” Shannon said.