Amarillo City Councilmembers May Have Violated Texas Open Meetings Act

Freda Powell, from left, Eddy Sauer, Howard Smith

The new City Council may have kicked off its tenure with a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act when three members attended a public forum hosted by Amarillo Economic Development Corp.

The Texas Open Meetings Act requires that meetings at which there is a quorum of government officials — in this case, three — be posted in advance and be open to the public.

The city failed to post such a notice before a Monday event that was attended by councilmembers Freda Powell, Eddy Sauer and Howard Smith.

The three were at an information meeting led by consultants hired by the city to assess the needs and priorities of Amarillo’s economic future.

The new City Council has yet to complete training on the Open Meetings Act, said City Attorney Mick McKamie. The Texas Government Code requires elected and appointed public officials to receive training in Texas open government laws within 90 days of taking office.

The required training covers both the Open Meetings Act and the Public Information Act.

An attorney working with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas said the council may have violated the Open Meetings Act because it appears the forum they attended fits the criteria of what the act describes as a meeting.

According to the Open Meetings Act, a meeting is defined as when a quorum of a governmental body is present and discusses city business, or when they are receiving information from or providing information to a third party about public business over which the council has control or supervision.

City Council members approved hiring a consultant in November to identify gaps in economic development to bolster the city’s flat sales tax revenue. The consultants — who also gave council an update on their findings during Tuesday’s City Council meeting — are finalizing a strategic action plan, which is set to be delivered to the council for approval in June.

Smith, who’s served on numerous advisory panels for the city government over the past decade, said he didn’t know he would be violating the Open Meetings Act because he didn’t realize other council members also would be attending.

“I guess we’re so active and anxious for the future,” he said.

This may be the second procedural error by Powell and Smith. Both may have also violated campaign finance laws earlier this year by accepting anonymous donations, according to Amarillo Globe-News archives. The two remedied the donation error after they were made aware of the issue.

City Manager Jared Miller said he takes full responsibility for not posting the meeting and said he had assumed a quorum wouldn’t be present at the meeting.

Going forward, Miller said he will be overly cautious and post a notice for any situation that might have the possibility of falling under the Open Meetings Act.

McKamie gave the council a briefing on laws that pertain to governmental bodies on Tuesday, he said. He plans to hold an open workshop on the subject soon.

Council members will not be penalized if they choose not to take the training, according to the attorney general’s office, but a deliberate failure to attend training may result in an increased risk of criminal conviction should they be accused of violating the act.

Violations of the Open Meetings Act may be subject to criminal prosecution.

Bianca Montes is the government reporter for the Amarillo Globe-News and may be reached at 806-345-3371; bianca.montes@amarillo.com; @reporterbianca on Twitter.

Source Article