Salary policy topics should be discussed in open session

Q: On the advance agenda for our next school board meeting “teachers salary scale” is listed as one of the topics of discussion in the meeting’s closed session. Isn’t salary scale a policy discussion that should be in open session?

A: Under Government Code Sec. 551.074, the Texas Open Meetings Act’s “Personnel Matters” exception, deliberations concerning an individual officer or employee are permitted. However, deliberations about a class of employees -- which is considered to be “policy” -- must be held in open session. You can find more about this on pp. 47-48 of the Texas Attorney General’s 2018 Open Meetings Handbook.
Also, under Sec. 551.102, Requirement to Vote or Take Final Action in Open Meeting, the handbook says: “A final action, decision, or vote on a matter deliberated in a closed meeting under this chapter may only be made in an open meeting that is held in compliance with the notice provisions of this chapter.”
So, it would be fair to ask the school board’s superintendent and president and attorney why salary scale is listed for discussion in the meeting’s closed session.

Q: The city council plans to attend a workshop in a city about half an hour from here. This raises questions about opportunities council members will have to discuss public business with no newspaper reporter to serve as watchdog. Is there anything I can do to make sure they avoid deliberating on topics that would only be suitable for an open meeting?

A: You might ask the mayor for two things: (1) a copy of the workshop agenda; and (2) what they’re going to do if public business comes up in any conversation among or between council members while they are out of town. 
The Texas Attorney General’s 2018 Open Meetings Handbook does contemplate the fact that the officers of governmental bodies attend workshops. You will find far down in this excerpt from p. 19 of the 2018 Texas Open Meetings Handbook a reference to workshops: 
“The term (‘meeting’) does not include the gathering of a quorum of a governmental body at a social function unrelated to the public business that is conducted by the body, or the attendance by a quorum of a governmental body at a regional, state, or national convention or workshop, ceremonial event, press conference, or the attendance by a quorum of a governmental body at a candidate forum, appearance, or debate to inform the electorate, if formal action is not taken and any discussion of public business is incidental to the social function, convention, workshop, ceremonial event, press conference, forum, appearance, or debate.”

Q: Our city council is on the brink of naming the city attorney as interim police chief. Is this a problem?

A: Let’s start by reading through Texas Constitution Article XVI Section 40, titled, Holding More Than One Office; Exceptions; Right to Vote. Next, find Texas Attorney General Opinion JM-847 (1988), which explores questions over whether an officeholder who temporarily, additionally performs the functions of another officeholder is actually holding the second office. There also is a 1996 Texas Attorney General Dan Morales Letter Opinion, LO96-81, that gives credence to the notion that a short-duration, temporary appointment might not constitute dual office holding. 
The Texas attorney general’s office can help in matters that arise over common law compatibility of two governmental offices. Whatever information the AG’s office creates on the topic is public information.

Q: One of the municipalities my newspaper covers has adopted a “citizens comment” request form that those who wish to speak during an open meeting must complete. The form includes inaccuracies about the Texas Open Meetings Act, a warning about potential civil and criminal penalties a citizen would be subject to for violating the act, and a statement that meetings must be closed for personnel, security, etc.

A: Could be that whoever wrote the copy for the form was not fully awake during the Texas Attorney General’s Open Meetings Act training video. The First Amendment/prior restraint implications in the wording of the form are alarming, which points toward the possibility that the form is some local official’s roughshod attempt to address HB 2840, legislation that passed the Legislature in May. It’s a good thing the municipality has time to rework its “citizens comment” form before the law takes effect on Sept. 1.
The new law would allow a citizen to speak about agenda items of a meeting of a taxing authority/local governmental body, under Government Code Sec. 551.001(3)(B-L). The bodies included are:
(B)  a county commissioners court;
(C)  a municipal governing body;
(D)  a deliberative body that has rulemaking or quasi-judicial power and that is classified as a department, agency, or political subdivision of a county or municipality;
(E)  a school district board of trustees;
(F)  a county board of school trustees;
(G)  a county board of education;
(H)  the governing board of a special district created by law;
(I)  a local workforce development board created under Section 2308.253;
(J)  a nonprofit corporation that is eligible to receive funds under the federal community services block grant program and that is authorized by this state to serve a geographic area of the state;
(K)  a nonprofit corporation organized under Chapter 67, Water Code, that provides a water supply or wastewater service, or both, and is exempt from ad valorem taxation under Section 11.30, Tax Code; and
(L)  a joint board created under Section 22.074, Transportation Code.

Have a question? Contact Ed Sterling at edsterling@texaspress.com.