Using disaster declaration authority, Gov. Greg Abbott said this week that local governments will be allowed to conduct official business remotely, without the usual quorum and public participation requirements of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Councils and commissions, until further notice, will be allowed to vote on agenda items during a videoconference or a conference call, “reducing non-essential in-person contact for a limited period, while ensuring that state and local government entities continue to work to fulfill necessary functions and with full transparency for the people of Texas,” Abbott said in a statement he issued Monday.
To reduce the in-person contact, Abbott said the head of an elected body — a mayor, a chairman or a commissioner — does not need to be present at the site where a regular meeting would normally take place.
A quorum of elected officials need not be in that regular meeting place, but a quorum must take part in the electronic conference for the meeting to be official, Abbott said.
The public must be allowed to view and participate by Skype or by phone in any such meeting in real time and a recording of the meeting be made available afterward, he said.
“I urge state and local officials to do their part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding meetings that bring people into large group settings,” Abbott said in his statement.
His staff crafted the proposal with the assistance and endorsement of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. The foundation played a significant role in developing the rules for governmental remote meetings passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013.
Attorney James Hemphill, president of the FOIFT board, said Tuesday that the foundation agreed with the changes, considering that “we’re dealing with a very unusual situation and with the understanding that public meeting rules return to normal as quickly as reasonably possible.
“Under the circumstances we thought some of these changes were unavoidable,” he said. “The governor’s office reached out specifically to FOIFT and we appreciated that.”
How quickly the changes might be put to the test are unclear. On Monday, the City of Austin postponed a series of public hearings and a scheduled third reading and vote, set for April 2, on a controversial overhaul of its land development code. No alternative dates have been set for those meetings.
The nearly 1,400-page code revision was passed in the first two readings by 7-4 votes after contentious debate. The city is being sued by 19 homeowners who contend the city has taken away their right to protest the zoning changes that could affect the character of their neighborhoods and the value of their homes and property.
City officials canceled all other board and commission meetings for the week. The council’s regularly scheduled meeting on March 26 has not yet been canceled.
The San Antonio City Council canceled all of its meetings for this week. The Dallas City Council scheduled a special meeting Wednesday to consider suspending all board and commission meetings during its declared state of disaster. And the Houston council today cleared its slate for this week after voting to extend its declaration of emergency and reconsider it in 30 days.
Abbott encouraged local governments to avoid calling any meetings that would bring big groups of people to public places. The Texas Government Code allows the governor to suspend provisions in government operating rules if they “prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”
The FOIFT recommended that local governments across the state defer action on important or controversial policy changes like the land development code until those issues can receive the appropriate and traditional public vetting, Hemphill said.
Local governments will still be required to give 72 hours notice of all upcoming meetings and publish agendas of those meetings, including action items.
Abbott directed questions from elected officials about the changes to the Office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, by e-mail at [email protected], or phone, 888-672-6787.
Teleconference and videoconference questions can be addressed by the Texas Department of Information Resources at dir.texas.gov or 512-475-4700.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].