TX lawmaker propose bill that will modernize Open Meetings Act

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GRAYSON CO, TX-A Texas lawmaker proposes to pass a bill that will modernize the state's Open Meetings Act, allowing government officials to discuss public business online instead of having to wait to do so in person.

Texas Senator Kirk Watson, along with Attorney General Greg Abbott hope to increase government transparency by pushing to pass a bill that will allow state, county and city government officials to discuss public matters on an online message board. City and county officials tell us what they think of the proposed bill.

Bells Mayor Gary Martin said they are in the process of creating a website, hoping to connect with more residents.

"A lot of them don't come to the council meetings and maybe this will get them more interested in the city and will want to get more involved which is what we want," he said.

Martin said he's concerned many residents aren't informed about what's going on in Bells. But a bill filed Thursday in Austin would modify the state's Open Meetings Act, allowing the public to view government discussion online.

"This is a new idea, I think it's a landmark tool for government. It springs from a sincere desire to help public servants do their work and help the public know what that work entails," said Sen. Kirk Watson (D).

The current Texas Open Meetings Act doesn't allow any state or local government officials to discuss policy issues or other business outside of an open meeting, which also means they can't make those discussions online.

But Watson hopes to change that through his bill.

"This senate bill allows government officials to communicate via an online message board and requires that all those conversations be prominently displayed online, publicly viewable and publicly accessible," he said.

"This is truly a win-win situation. It's a win that it advances the ball for open government, it allows greater communication, greater transparency and higher productivity," said Attorney General Greg Abbott.

According to the bill, while government officials can communicate via online message boards, they can't take action on an item..

Martin said if the bill passes, it will help them conduct meetings more efficiently. But Grayson County Judge, Drue Bynum saw it differently.

"When I don't have to face the heat for my statements within the public, I wonder if we're getting the true nature of open government which the Texas Open Meetings Act is supposed to ensure. So I wonder if that's gonna be out there," he said.

Atty. Gen. Abbott said state and local government officials can choose whether or not they will start discussing public matters on an online message board.

The bill will be reviewed by the state Senate committee.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

March 7, 2013

Press Office at
(512) 463-2050

Attorney General Abbott, Sen. Watson Announce Legislation to Modernize Texas Open Meetings Act, Expand Transparency

AUSTIN - Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today joined Senator Kirk Watson to express support for legislation that would modernize the Texas Open Meetings Act. Attorney General Abbott made the following statement about Senator Watson's legislative proposal:

"For more than four decades, Texas has had some of the strongest open government laws in the nation. Though these laws continue to protect the transparency that is so vital to democracy, the public always benefits when modern technology is harnessed to make government more accessible. Today, Senator Watson has taken a step in that very direction with a common sense proposal to bring the Open Meetings Act into the 21st century. Under this legislation, members of governing boards would be able to exchange thoughts and ideas in an electronic forum that is open and accessible to the public in real-time. Senator Watson's proposed legislation would merge open government laws with modern technology and keep Texas government operating in the sunshine and accountable to the public."

"Government should function efficiently and effectively, and the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing. No matter where folks fall on the political spectrum, they should agree with both of those statements," Senator Watson said. "Today, technology is helping put to rest the notion that transparency must be sacrificed in the name of functionality, or vice versa. This innovative bill uses technology to ensure that officials at every level of government can communicate when they need to, and that the public can be in on that conversation."

To ensure public business is conducted in an open and transparent manner, the Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of a state or local governmental body's board or commission from communicating with their fellow board members unless they are in an open meeting. As a result, a quorum of the board cannot deliberate electronically - or otherwise - between publicly posted meetings about official business or policy matters.

Senator Watson's legislation seeks to expand the Texas Open Meetings Act by creating a new tool that governmental bodies can use to facilitate electronic communications between board members - while still protecting the public's interest in open and transparent government. If enacted into law, Senator Watson's proposal would give the public greater insight into officials' thought processes by allowing them to view the open discussions on an official online forum. Although the bill authorizes communication among board members, they would be limited to that purpose and could not take official action except in a properly posted open meeting.

Senator Watson's legislation would impose the following requirements and controls on official message boards:
• The communication must be in writing;
• The writing must be posted to an online message board that is viewable by the public;
• The communication must be displayed in real time and displayed on the online message board for no less than 30 days after the communication is first posted;
• The governmental body may only have one online message board that the governmental body either owns or controls;
• The online message board must be prominently displayed on the governmental body's primary Internet Web page;
• The online message board may only be used by members of the governmental body and/or its officers;
• A communication that a member of the governmental body removes from an online message board after the 30-day window is subject to the Public Information Act and must be retained for two years; and
• The governmental body may not vote or take any action that is required to be taken at a meeting simply by posting a written communication to an online message board.

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