A new state law meant to increase government transparency might in practice reduce the amount of information about city operations in Liberty and elsewhere that had previously been made readily available to the public.
In its last session, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2840, that became effective Sept. 1 and requires that city councils “allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda for an open meeting of the body to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item.”
Liberty posts its council agendas online several days ahead of meetings, plus an expanded copy of it called the “Agenda Packet” that includes additional information and exhibits council members need, along with routine reports from city departments.
The first report is the city manager’s, which this week begins as follows:
“The recent changes to State Law regarding transparency in government will result in several changes to the City Council Meeting Agenda and the City Manager’s Report. Since any item in the City Manager’s Report or the Department Monthly Reports could potentially become a discussion item, only significant items from either one of these reports will be included on the agenda and presented to City Council during the City Manager’s Report on the Agenda.”
The new law seems to require the council to let any citizen to speak on any matter referenced in in its agenda, including items within departmental reports listed on the agenda.
Only the city manager knows what he left out of his report, but among the subjects he included this week is a passing mention of a softball game played Friday between the fire and police departments. Should any resident want to show up Tuesday night and waste some of the council’s time expressing his opinion over whether a Fire Department baserunner should or should not have been called out in the third inning, state law now appears to give him the right to do just that.
Also in the report is information about disaster recovery, Sam Rayburn Municipal Power Agency funds, project updates, City Hall’s new backup generator and repairs made to the building, and the Rotary Club. Citizens can come talk about all of that, too.
Next on the agenda are reports from the city finance officer, the fire and police departments, the permits office, public works department, and the library.
Anyone with some silly thing to say about the number of books checked out of the library last month now has a right under state law to come to City Hall Tuesday night and tell them what he thinks during the council meeting. Apparently, the state legislature believes our unpaid council members have nothing better to do.
At each regular meeting the council votes to approve the minutes of its previous meeting. This “Minute Approval” is on the current week’s agenda and the minutes of the Oct. 8 meeting are included in the agenda packet.
Does the new law mean a resident can attend this Tuesday night and talk about items discussed at the last meeting?
I don’t know, and our state lawmakers probably don’t know either. It is unlikely they even thought about it.
Had more legislators sat on city councils, consulted councils about this bill, or even looked at a typical city council agenda, they might have known only part of council agendas contain items on which councils might take action, helpfully entitled “Action Items.”
They could have made H.B. 2840 apply to only those items a council intends to discuss and upon which it might vote. But they didn’t, and there is a price to be paid for that.
Liberty’s city manager, and no doubt all city managers and city department heads in Texas, will now limit reports to bare essentials. How much information they leave out will likely depend on how many irate members of the public attend council meetings to carry on about matters the council had not intended to discuss and that are not up for a vote.
The legislature can pass all the laws it wants, but it cannot repeal the law of unintended consequences, and one consequence of H.B 2840 is that we can now expect to be given a little less information about our government.
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