Local city governments’ discussion of public business was taken behind closed doors a combined 63 times in the past year, with the City of Clarksville opting to do so the most at 20. With few exceptions, nearly all of the 63 meetings fell under exemptions in the state’s Open Meetings Act.
The Paris News reviewed the meeting activity of each municipality in its coverage area, and the Lamar County Commissioners’ Court, for the year between July 2018 and June 2019. The data showed there were two city councils, Cooper and Detroit, that conducted all of their business in open session.
“We have not been in executive session in over two years,” Mayor Darren Braddy said. “We do it all out in the open. I’m not saying we can’t, but ... we do our meetings a little differently. We like to be as transparent as possible.”
The Texas Open Meetings Act is specific about when a government can close a meeting to the public, a move also known as entering executive
session. While the large majority of reasons cited for closed meetings met the conditions required by the act, there were a few that did not.
Roxton City Council closed its doors eight times during the year examined, using the Open Meeting Act’s exemption for consideration of specific personnel matters six times. But discussion in one of the eight meetings involved hazardous lots in need of cleaning and another to discuss water rates, neither of which falls under the act’s exemptions.
“We’re new to this,” City Secretary Janet Wheeler said, referencing city leadership on the council.
Elected officials conducting public business are legally required to undergo Open Meetings Act training, which is available at on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s website at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open-government/open-meetings-act-training. Wheeler said Roxton’s council would review exemptions and abide by the Open Meetings Act in the future.
For real estate discussions to take place in a closed meeting, deliberation must be focused on the purchase, exchange, lease or value of the property, and the closed meeting is only allowed “if discussion of the real estate in an open meeting would have a detrimental effect on the ability of the governing body to negotiate with a third party,” according to the Texas Municipal League’s Open Meetings Act handbook. And while there is an exemption for city-owned utilities, only discussions on certain competitive matters relating to city-owned electric or gas utility may take place in closed session.
Blossom City Council conducted four closed meetings and all called on the act’s personnel exemption. One of the four meetings, which City Secretary Stacy Prestridge said involved the discussion of specific employee vacation sell-back, could be allowed under the Open Meetings Act. The other three, however, involved discussion on salary schedules, overtime compensation, and part-time temporary help and temporary summer work hours, all of which involve a class of employees and all of which should be discussed in public session.
“I was not aware we were out of compliance, and I’ll make sure we don’t commit any more violations moving forward,” Mayor Charlotte Burge said.
The Texas Municipal League’s handbook states a governing body may meet in executive session under the personnel exception only if the person being discussed is an officer or employee of the entity.
“A governmental body may not discuss general policies regarding an entire class of employees in a closed meeting held under the personnel exception,” wrote Zindia Thomas, Texas Municipal League assistant general counsel, in the municipal league’s handbook. “Such general policies must be addressed during the open portion of a meeting.”
According to the Texas Open Meetings Act, other exemptions include:
specific consultations with the government’s attorney;
discussions about security personnel, security devices or a security audit;
discussions about a prospective gift or donation to a governmental body;
discussions of potential test items for licensing individuals to engage in an activity;
discussions of certain economic development matters; and,
certain information relating to the subject of emergencies and disasters.
To enter a closed meeting, governments are required to have a quorum, to first meet in open session, and to have the presiding officer announce the closed session and identify the sections of the act authorizing it.
Of its 20 closed meetings between July 2018 and June 2019, Clarksville City Council cited the personnel exemption 18 times, the potential litigation exemption three times, and the business prospect and real estate exemptions once each. Some of the closed meetings involved more than one exemption.
Clarksville’s high use of the personnel exemption is attributed largely to its search and hiring of its new city manager, Julie Arrington, and its new police chief, Donald J. Blasingame. Arrington was hired in May and Blasingame in April.
Paris City Council called closed meetings 12 times, citing the economic development exemption six times, attorney consultation twice, and once each for personnel matters, real property deliberations, and security devices or security audits discussion.
Honey Grove City Council closed its meetings 10 times. Public meeting minutes show six closed meetings were to discuss personnel matters while four involved real estate deliberations.
The Lamar County Commissioners’ Court called nine closed meetings, six of which were to discuss a business prospect, three for personnel discussion and one for real estate deliberations. One of the closed meetings addressed two exemptions.
Deport’s city council met in closed session seven times, according to the city’s meetings minutes. Five of those meetings involved personnel matters. Two involved real estate discussions.
And Reno City Council called two closed meetings, once for a business prospect discussion and once for real estate deliberations.