A former Richardson schools trustee has alleged in court filings that district board members repeatedly and intentionally violated the state’s open meetings law by gathering secretly in small groups to discuss issues outside of public view and then “deleting emails, text messages, and voicemails documenting those secret pre-meeting communications, specifically to avoid detection.”
David Tyson Jr., a board member from 2004 to 2010, alleges in his complaint, filed in state district court in Dallas, that “the Board would then vote on the issue in question at the open meeting, knowing that a unanimous decision had already been reached.”
Tyson claims the board would hold “mini sessions” with three members, short of the legally required quorum but including legal counsel.
“The Board members are fully aware that these mini sessions are improper and undergo great lengths to conceal their existence,” the complaint says. “In fact, when a request is issued for certain Board members to disclose their emails, Board members erase any record of their improper activity.”
When he was attorney general, Gov. Greg Abbott ruled that such clandestine meetings, which he dubbed a “walking quorum,” violate the open meetings law.
He wrote in that 2005 opinion, “Members of a governmental body who knowingly conspire to gather in numbers that do not physically constitute a quorum at any one time but who through successive gatherings secretly discuss a public matter with a quorum of that body” violate the law.
In an email, school district spokesman Chris Moore said the district has not yet been served official notice of the suit. “Until the suit is received, we can offer no comment,” he said.
Tyson said the secret meetings are still going on. He noted that the board has voted unanimously over 500 times in the last seven years, with none of those votes “substantiated by any meaningful, documented discussion or deliberation.”
The conduct has gone on for over 15 years, Tyson alleged. His suit names all current board members as well as the district itself as defendants.
“These are serial meetings where these members are coordinating their votes and having their discussions in a way that they think gets them around the demands of the open meetings act,” said William Brewer III, who is representing Tyson in the lawsuit. “And the law is clear that these meetings are illegal.”
Tyson is not seeking monetary damages, but if a decision goes against the district, “any vote that was taken in violation of the open meetings act is potentially voidable,” Brewer said, including millions of dollars in expenditures.
“We hope to gain through discovery a look into dozens of votes made over the years that have been done without the public’s ability to scrutinize them,” he said.
In Texas, penalties for violating the open meetings act are weak and rarely used, ranging from a $500 fine to six months in jail.
“Plaintiff can only speculate why the members of the Board have such disrespect for the citizens of Richardson Independent School District,” the suit says.
Brewer said a video played before a board meeting last month is indicative of that lack of respect. The video instructs citizens, step by step, in the procedure for speaking to the board during the visitor comments section of meetings.
“The public comment period is not the appropriate time to present complaints,” the video instructs. “The board will only consider complaints that remain unresolved after they have been addressed through proper administrative channels and when they have been placed on the agenda.”
Tyson also sued the district in federal court in January, alleging that its at-large voting system violates the federal Voting Rights Act by denying fair representation to black citizens. Brewer also represents Tyson in that case.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].