Freedom of Information
The Open Meetings Law, passed in 1967 and amended in 1969, was strengthened by overwhelming votes by the reform-minded legislature in 1973. The new law went into effect January 1. 1974.
While open meetings legislation has been credited with prying open many governmental bodies, prosecutions under the law have been spotty. Professional journalists believe that the news media have a responsibility to see that the law is followed. To that end, reporters and editors must be well informed as to the law.
The law provides that every regular, special or called meeting or session of every governmental body “shall be open to the public.” Legislative committees are included.
Executive or closed sessions are strictly limited by the law. The act makes illegal unofficial or pre-meeting meetings at which members of the governmental body get together to iron out details of matters to be discussed at the open meeting.
A change during the 1999 legislative session makes briefings to governmental bodies held in closed session unlawful.
Few exceptions are legally available for executive or closed sessions. Among the exceptions are:
1.Consultations with an attorney to discuss pending or contemplated litigation;
2.Discussions about purchase, exchange or lease of property or discussion about the negotiations of contracts for gifts or donations;
3.The appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of an employee.
For exceptions, as noted in the law, the public body must first meet and announce the legal justification for going into private session and when the private session is over must reconvene to take final action on matters discussed in private.
Notification is required at least 72 hours in advance for regular meetings. In the event of an emergency meeting, two-hour notification is required and the presiding officer must inform the news media if they have indicated they want to be informed.
The legislature amended the act in 1975 to require that notice of the meeting of the state board, commission, department or officer having statewide jurisdiction, other than the industrial accident board or the governing board of an institution of higher education, must be posted by the secretary of state for at least seven days preceding the day of the meeting.
In 1977 the legislature approved a law that allows a public body to discuss but not vote on issues raised at a public meeting but which were not included in the advance notice agenda.
A 1979 change in the law says: “Any interested person, including bona fide members of the news media, may commence an action either by mandamus or injunction for the purpose of stopping or preventing violations or threatened violations of this Act by members of a governing body.”
Punishments under the act are misdemeanors with possible fines of $100 to $500 and/or county jail imprisonment of from one to six months.
The attorney general’s office provides a book on the law, Open Meetings Handbook. It may be obtained by writing or calling the attorney general’s office at Post Office Box 12548, Austin 78711-2548 or 512 463 2100.
The attorney general’s web site is www.oag.state.tx.us.
Federal Open Meetings
A United States “government-in-the-sunshine” law went into effect in 1977 and opened the doors to more than 50 federal boards and agencies. All agencies under the act must announce their meetings at least a week in advance. Closed session are allowed under specific circumstances, but the reason for the closed meeting must be certified by the legal officer of the agency. Public law 94-409.