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City council’s closed meetings continue to cause disagreement

City council’s closed meetings continue to cause disagreement

City council’s closed meetings continue to cause disagreement
March 01
17:14 2017

With city council elections looming and three new council members coming in mid-year, the issue of closed meetings has come up again. Mayor Chris Watts said in the Feb. 7 work session that he believed this was an issue that should be revisited.

“I think it would be good to hear what those discussions are,” Watts said. “I’d like to give the people who are going to be here an opportunity to weigh in on that.”

There have been questions as to who is allowed to be in the closed meetings, as well as view the records kept for them. Council member Kathleen Wazny also brought up the concern of what kind of voting and deliberation can occur behind closed doors. She accused the body of illegally taking “straw-votes” in sessions closed to the public.

Transparency concerns

State law claims city council has the final say in who is allowed in on closed sessions. But Wazny suspects the council heeds its city employees too often. She said in prior closed meetings, that discretion has been out of the hands of the council.

“The governing body shall decide [who can be in the meeting],” Wazny said. “It does not say ‘city manager decides,’ or ‘city attorney decides.’”

The city is also required to keep either agenda minutes or a tape recording of closed meetings. Some citizens are weary of that method, however, saying without a recording there is no proof of potential wrong-doing by council members, as an agenda doesn’t provide a transcript. Wazny brought up the fact that closed sessions are not recorded, and added the city may be better off if it started recording them.

Other concerns are that the city has been in the habit of having too many closed meetings, namely regarding Anita Burgess, the city attorney who announced in November that she would retire in February 2017.

Burgess could not be reached for comment.

The Texas Open Meetings Act

TOMA lays out the requirements for a city’s governing body in regards to a meeting. The board must post their plans to meet (open or closed) 72 hours prior to meeting in a place that is easily accessible to the public. Any person is free to come to an open meeting.

In order for a closed meeting to be called, the board must hold an open session, where the presiding officer (typically the mayor) announces there will be a closed session, as well as justify the meeting with which sections of the law the meeting will be called under. These sessions can include a consultation with an attorney regarding issues the board could be legally exposed on, deliberation of property and economic development negotiations. While permitted, closed meetings are limited.

Disagreements about closed sessions

The issue council members and officials have brought up, though, is the concern that making things too public could be detrimental to the city, specifically in the form of economic development. If Denton is competing against other cities for business, the information regarding Denton city council’s bid, their opinions of the business or trade secrets being made public could cause risk.

“If we had those discussions in an open session, the companies considering coming to town will just not do it if they know there’s going to be a possible debate,” council member Dalton Gregory said in the work session.

Council members Gregory, Kevin Roden, and Joey Hawkins all expressed sentiments defending the current process.

“I’m struggling to understand the problem that exists,” Roden said in the work session. “Can we point to certain closed sessions items that across the board we’ve been violating the law?”

Watts said he attributes most of the closed sessions to Denton having a publicly-owned electric company, Denton Municipal Electric. General Manager Phil Williams said DME is one of the six biggest municipal utilities in the state, with 51,000 customers.

Featured Image: Mayor Chris Watts speaks at a Denton City Council meeting. Tomas Gonzalez

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James Norman

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