Q: Our county election commission has five members: the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties. The commission appoints members to the early voting ballot board, appoints the early voting signature verification committee, approves the purchase of election supplies, etc. Is the commission subject to the open meetings law?
A: Texas Attorney General Opinion GA-0361, written in 2005, concludes that: “Assuming that the county commissioners court does not routinely rubber-stamp its decisions, a county election commission is not a county commissioners court or a deliberative body with rule-making or quasi-judicial powers. Accordingly, a commission is not a governmental body subject to the (Texas Open Meetings) Act. A commission thus is not subject to the Act’s public notice and posting requirements, although no law precludes a commission from voluntarily complying with these or any of the Act’s other requirements.”
Q: There have been many court cases dealing with election laws in Texas over the past few years. These cases have dealt mostly with voter identification, allegations of illegal voting and partisan gerrymandering. Is there a free, public website where I can check court rulings on this nature?
A: Election law opinions by Texas secretaries of state are listed on a page of the Texas Secretary of State’s website, www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/elo/index.shtml. The most recent of the posted opinions is dated 2013, so it’s important to note that the website has a page containing a list of federal court orders pertaining to Texas elections at https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/laws/court-orders.shtml.
Q: A candidate for local office delivered ad copy to us. The copy turned out to be a transcript of a political advertisement that is being broadcast by the local radio station. It contains allegations against the advertiser’s opponent in the election. What are our options?
A: You can choose not to accept the ad, and that is what many of your colleagues do when they know that one or more allegations is false or unverifiable, or if the copy is crude or in bad taste that violates the newspaper’s standards.
Another red flag is the fact that the ad copy was presented to you at the last press deadline before the election, so that the opponent would have no chance to respond in kind.
When situations like that arise, so do questions of fairness. Some newspaper publishers head off problems by informing all candidates of the deadline for them to submit ad copy and what information must be included in the disclosure statement, or disclaimer. Also, it never hurts to provide candidates with a link to the Texas Ethics Commission publication, “Political Advertising: What You Need to Know,” at https://www.ethics.state.tx.us/guides/Gpolad.pdf.
Q: Our county commissioners court appointed an interim justice of the peace. Does the county commissioners court also have the authority to set the replacement justice of the peace’s rate of pay, or should he get the same compensation as the JP he succeeded in office?
A: Your county commissioners court sets pay, including longevity pay, and compensation for the county’s employees. For more on this topic, see Local Government Code Chapter 152, AMOUNT OF COMPENSATION, EXPENSES AND ALLOWANCES OF COUNTY OFFICERS AND EMPLOYEES.
Also, please see Texas Attorney General Opinion KP-135 at texasattorneygeneral.gov.
Q: A city police department that I cover is stonewalling my requests for the top sheet of arrest reports. Top-sheet information is public information. The police department is requesting an AG opinion to determine if the information I am seeking is public or not, and they are citing a recent AG letter opinion that they contend gives them the grounds to reject my requests. While this request for an AG opinion is pending, what can I do other than wait for it?
A: Media attorney Paul Watler with Jackson Walker LLP encourages you to point out, in a letter brief to the attorney general, that the AG letter opinion the police department is hanging its hat on fails to pay any attention to Government Code Sec. 552.108(c), the law that requires the release of “basic information” about an arrest.
552.108(c) reads as follows: “This section does not except from the requirements of Section 552.021 information that is basic information about an arrested person, an arrest, or a crime.”
Next, Sec. 552.021, reads as follows: “AVAILABILITY OF PUBLIC INFORMATION. Public information is available to the public at a minimum during the normal business hours of the governmental body.”