Monday, January 30, 2017

HCDE & The Open Meetings Act

Greg Abbott said...

"The Texas Open Meetings Act represents a commitment to the people of Texas that the public’s business will be conducted in the open. It is a legal guarantee of a transparent government..."

 “The provisions of [the Act] are mandatory and are to be liberally construed in favor of open government.”

What is the point of these promises if elected officials aren't really required to follow The Texas Open Meetings Act?

So today I mailed the following letter to the Harris County DA's Public Integrity Division requesting an investigation into possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by HCDE's Board of Trustees on Jan. 26, 2017.

Page 1

Page 2

The facts:

1. The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) legal services document reads as follows:
How does a school district hire a school attorney?
The board votes. The board, acting as a body corporate, selects and retains the district’s attorney. While the superintendent’s recommendation is valuable, the board is the “client” which ultimately makes this critical decision. 
Discuss in open session. Discussions and deliberations regarding the retention of an attorney, interviews with prospective counsel or discussions of their qualifications, and discussions or negotiations of the contract between the district and its attorney may not be conducted in closed meetings. All such discussions must be conducted in properly posted open meetings. An outside attorney or law firm is an independent contractor; therefore, the personnel exception in the Open Meetings Act does not apply. Of course, if the district is employing an attorney to serve as a member of its staff, then the attorney will be an employee of the district and his or her employment may be discussed in closed session pursuant to the personnel exception. 

2. HCDE currently contracts with the law firm of Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P. to serve as their board attorney. An attorney from the firm is present at every HCDE Board meeting to provide legal advice because HCDE does not employ a staff attorney.

3. HCDE held its regular monthly board meeting on Jan. 26, 2017. Agenda item 8W would have hired new general counsel for HCDE and changed Rogers, Morris, & Grover's role at HCDE. 
It read:
Consider hiring Chris Carmona as the HCDE’s board attorney and general counsel of HCDE. Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P. will be treated as “of counsel” and will be utilized at Chris Carmona’s discretion."       
4. HCDE Trustees held all of the discussions on this agenda item in closed session with the attorney from  Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P, even though the law firm is an independent contractor and a change in the firm’s contract was part of the agenda item.

While Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P. was behind closed doors with the Trustees, the other attorney being considered for general counsel remained in the public meeting room and was not invited into closed session.

You can view the Board's actions for yourself...

                                    View the video of the full meeting: here

5.  After the closed session, HCDE’s Trustees still held no public discussion of the agenda item. Instead, the agenda item was amended to issue a Request for Qualifications and Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P.’s  contract with HCDE remained unchanged with all discussions happening behind closed doors.

The Test

Those were the facts. Now for the test. 

Now is when the citizens of Harris County find out if the Texas Open Meetings Act really is "mandatory." 

If it really is a "legal guarantee of a transparent government..."

Or if it's all just more empty political promises. 

Colleen Vera


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