Q: One of our municipal utility districts posted its meeting agenda on Facebook but not through the county clerk’s office, which is the usual way. What does the law require?
A: Here is what the Texas Attorney General’s 2016 Open Meetings Handbook has to say on the matter, under the heading “Time of Posting.”
“Notice must be posted for a minimum length of time before each meeting. Section 551.043(a) states the general time requirement as follows: The notice of a meeting of a governmental body must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times for at least 72 hours before the scheduled time of the meeting, except as provided by Sections 551.044–551.046. Section 551.043(b) relates to posting notice on the Internet. Where the Act allows or requires a governmental body to post notice on the Internet, the following provisions apply to the posting: (1) the governmental body satisfies the requirement that the notice be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times by making a good faith attempt to continuously post the notice on the Internet during the prescribed period; (2) the governmental body must still comply with any duty imposed by this chapter to physically post the notice at a particular location; and (3) if the governmental body makes a good-faith attempt to continuously post the notice on the Internet during the prescribed period, the notice physically posted at the location prescribed by this chapter must be readily accessible to the general public during normal business hours.
Q: I have a copy of the letter of resignation from the city attorney. The council accepted his resignation.
In the resignation letter, the city’s now-former counsel gave a reason for his resignation. He said he would no longer represent the board because they go into executive sessions against counsel’s advice.
Now, I have three questions about this:
(1) Did they have to accept the resignation?
(2) Did they have to do it in a timely manner?
(3) Did they have to accept it before hiring new counsel?
A: I looked online for an answer and what I found was a slide presentation at http://texascityattorneys.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/tcaa-2016-power...
In the presentation there is a slide that says: “For a resignation to be effective, it must be written; signed; submitted to the City’s governing body; and either approved and accepted by the governing body or if not approved or accepted by the governing body, then the resignation will be effective 8 days after the date the City received the resignation. See also Texas Attorney General Opinion GA-0046 and State v. Hardberger, 932 S.W.2d 489 (Tex. 1996).”
Q: We’re having trouble here with our police department. We’ve just recently had a few crime stories of widespread public interest and we don’t know about them until we see broadcast on the metro television stations. The police department’s public information officer is telling us that if we’re interested, we should check their Facebook page. Are other Texas Press members having this problem? Our scanner doesn’t pick up their transmissions and neither does the new one I bought. What can I do to stay in the know about what is happening in our police department?
A: Here is information from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which I hope you will share with the police chief and the police department’s public information officer or custodian of public information. First, please open the URL, https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/og/open-records-memorandum-rulings
Once you’re there, scroll down to Government Code 552.108 and read all of it, especially 552.108(a)(2), which is the list of all the information that is considered public information in an arrest report.
You will readily discern that it’s not in keeping with the Texas public information law when a police department or any other governmental body releases information to one person or entity, like a broadcast news station, and doesn’t do the same for your newspaper. The Texas Attorney General says all requests for public information must be treated the same. No playing favorites.
I can’t tell you much about encrypted scanners and such, but it’s a perfect subject to bring up on the TPA publisher listserv, which you can join by going here: http://www.texaspress.com/join-discussion-groups
Q: After I sent the question (above) to you, my managing editor and reporter came in with new information about this issue. The PIO only works Monday through Friday, so anything that happens on the weekend has to wait until he returns on Monday, or later. The PIO told my guys he posts all of his press releases on the police department’s FaceBook page and this may be how the TV stations are getting it first. So, O.K., we can do that, too, but can the PIO opt to release this information via Facebook, rather than releasing it in person, when we ask for it?
A: Thanks to TPA members’ willingness to share stories like this at our Texas Press statewide meetings, I can say that other police departments are using Facebook to disseminate information, but most will promptly respond to requests for public information. If the current or a previous Texas attorney general has said information made available to the public via a commercial carrier, e.g., social media, is adequate and not in violation of the Texas Public Information Act, I don’t necessarily agree because the law, as currently written, doesn’t contemplate such a thing.
The stuff a police department posts may not be exactly what you need, plus, what if you’re not comfortable with Facebook or some other social media platform as the carrier? Anyway, I think you are feeling the effects of a new trend that is not as responsive to your requests as you’ve been used to through the years. That said, I could almost bet that somewhere in Texas, a police department PIO would argue that posting that kind of information to the department’s Facebook page costs taxpayers less and gives police officers more time to spend on law enforcement.
Q: Interesting response. I guess our police department can just use Facebook to promote their community deeds, since they apparently don’t want to have a relationship with their local newspaper.
A: Well, I hope you and your staffers keep on working on that relationship with the police department. Maybe something will remind the chief of what a unique and valuable asset the newspaper is in dealing with crime and promoting public safety and awareness. Their sharing of information with the reading public is critical to the healthy function of a city and its police department. And let it be said once more, that no other medium is providing a lasting, broadly and regularly disseminated record of the work a police department is doing.
Q: My city council is acting up again. In January, they held an executive session with boilerplate language that they have on every agenda. When my reporter asked which exception they were going into closed session for, they said it could be any one of a long string of exceptions, and that they did not have to tell her which one because they might decide to discuss any of them. I contend that they have to tell us which exception authorizes them to go into the executive session. They have another meeting Tuesday and will pull the same thing I am sure. I plan to attend. Can you help me find documentation so I can go armed?
A: Here’s an excerpt from page 27 of the Texas Attorney General’s Texas Open Meetings Act Handbook:
VII. Notice Requirements
The Act requires written notice of all meetings. Section 551.041 of the Act provides: A governmental body shall give written notice of the date, hour, place, and subject of each meeting held by the governmental body. A governmental body must give the public advance notice of the subjects it will consider in an open meeting or a closed executive session. The Act does not require the notice of a closed meeting to cite the section or subsection numbers of provisions authorizing the closed meeting. No judicial decision or attorney general opinion states that a governmental body must indicate in the notice whether a subject will be discussed in open or closed session, but some governmental bodies do include this information. If the notices posted for a governmental body’s meetings consistently distinguish between subjects for public deliberation and subjects for executive session deliberation, an abrupt departure from this practice may raise a question as to the adequacy of the notice. Governmental actions taken in violation of the notice requirements of the Act are voidable. If some actions taken at a meeting do not violate the notice requirements while others do, only the actions in violation of the Act are voidable.