KEY CONCEPT: Open Meetings
KEY QUESTION: What are the general statutory regulations regarding Commissioners Court meetings?
MAIN REFERENCE POINT:
Texas Government Code Chapter 551, The Open Meetings Act
- The Open Meetings Act provides public access to meetings of governmental bodies – such as the commissioners court – except for those meetings expressly authorized as executive sessions.
- A meeting takes place when a quorum of the commissioners court joins together and discuses an issue within the court’s jurisdiction. Quorum means majority, thus a quorum of the commissioners court is three members. (A special quorum of four is required when the court is levying a tax.)
- The public must be given notice of the time, place, and subject matter of commissioners court meetings. Many governmental bodies post the agenda of the meeting with the notice or as the notice, so many people use the terms “notice” and “agenda” interchangeably to refer to the posted document.
- The notice must be posted on a bulletin board at the county courthouse. This bulletin board must be readily accessible to the general public at all times for at least 72 hours before the scheduled time of the meeting. Counties with an Internet website must post an electronic notice. Counties that make Internet postings must also make a physical, hard-copy posting at the courthouse; however this notice must be accessible to the general public during normal business hours, rather than “at all times” during the 72-hour period.
- The Open Meetings Act requires a governmental body to keep minutes, or make a tape recording, of every meeting. The minutes are a public record. Another statute requires the county clerk to keep the minutes of the commissioners court meetings.
- Only the members of a governmental body have a right to attend an executive session; however, the governmental body’s attorney must be present when it meets under section 551.071. This means a commissioners court may exclude the county clerk from an executive sessions because the county clerk is not a member of the court. The commissioners court has the discretion to include in an executive session officers and employees of the governmental body whose participation is necessary considering the matter under discussion.
- If a governmental body is unable to discuss all items posted on their notice (agenda) due to time constraints, the court may recess until the next day without having to post another notice. However, if a meeting is continued to any day other than the one immediately following, the governmental body must post a new notice.
- The 81st Legislature enacted a bill to allow a municipality’s governing body to receive staff reports regarding items of community interest during a meeting of the body, provided that no action is taken and there is no discussion of possible action on the information contained in the report. A bill passed by the 82nd Legislature extends the same privilege to county governments.
- Commissioners courts are not required to allow citizens to speak at commissioners court meetings. However, the court may allow the public to speak and may adopt procedures to dictate the format.
- District courts have jurisdiction over criminal violations of the Open Meeting Act as misdemeanors involving official misconduct. Thus, complaints should be presented to the district attorney or criminal district attorney.
- Section 551.005 requires member of the commissioners court to complete a course of training addressing the member’s responsibilities under the Act. The public official must complete the training not later than the 90th day after taking the oath of office. The attorney general is required to ensure that the training is made available, and must also ensure that at least one course approved or provided by the attorney general’s office is available at no cost on videotape, DVD, or a similar and widely available medium.
For additional information on the Open Meetings Act, including sections on “Walking Quorums” and “New Technologies,” go to https://www.oag.state.tx.us/AG_Publications/pdfs/openmeeting_hb.pdf .