City of Odessa will now record closed sessions thanks to newspaper lawsuit

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Odessa open meetings act

A lawsuit filed by the Odessa daily newspaper has prompted the local city council to record its closed sessions rather than keep written minutes.

The city is doing so as part of a legal settlement.

But the law regarding documentation of the executive sessions by public bodies — the portions of meetings carried on behind closed doors — is “worthless” and needs to be clarified, a state lawmaker said.

“There’s a weird alternative in this law,” said state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park. “It’s worthless. I’m going to file a bill that will fix this, it really needs to be amended.”

He refers to an opaque provision in the state’s public information law that states “a governmental body shall either keep a certified agenda or make a recording of the proceedings of each closed meeting…”

The provision is made additionally difficult with a 1985 AG opinion that allows the majority of a public panel to object to any recording, even if one member of that panel would like to have the session recorded.

The statute also includes a clause stipulating that a county commissioner’s court must record private deliberations of a contract, although there is no enforcement mechanism for that.

Recordings can provide evidence to convict or exonerate a public body or figure in cases of conspiracy or other malfeasance related to private negotiations conducted out of the public eye.

The Odessa American sued the city of Odessa last year, alleging the city failed to adequately provide notice of what was to be discussed in executive session.

During a May 9th meeting, “the city council violated the open meetings act by meeting in closed session to discuss and decide to remove a member of the Odessa Development Corporation,” the newspaper’s complaint reads.

The council was warned by the city’s attorney that it needed to name the individual being considered for termination on the list of items to be considered in closed session. In response, a council member listed all five members of the development corporation.

The two parties settled. As part of the agreement, the city announced last week that it would record closed sessions from now on. While many municipalities now record and/or broadcast the public portion of their meetings, the recording of closed sessions is not widely practiced in Texas.

The state has a law providing penalties against a person who discloses a recording of an executive session.

Nationally, laws on the practice run from the strict, as in Iowa where closed sessions must be recorded and minutes taken, to not being addressed at all.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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