Denton City Council repeals ordinance after allegation it violated free speech

By Jenna Duncan
Denton Record-Chronicle
Originally published Dec. 15, 2015

The Denton City Council voted unanimously to repeal a nearly 10-year-old ordinance stating that council members who spoke about closed session items outside of the session could face criminal charges.

While the agenda said the council would consider amending the ordinance to remove any criminal penalties, council member Kevin Roden moved to take the ordinance off the books altogether.

He pressed City Attorney Anita Burgess to explain there are strict laws in place at the state level to ensure ethical behavior of elected officials, and harsher punishments for those who don’t follow the rules.

The ordinance, and a broader conversation about ethical standards for officials in the city, has been ongoing since October, after the council couldn’t agree to repeal or modify it during meetings.

The ordinance, which had been on the books since 2006, said that council members could face a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $500 fine, a public sanction and possible removal from office if they talk about what happens in closed session.

In October, council member Kathleen Wazny led the charge to repeal the ordinance, but didn’t have the backing. Even when discussing the matter earlier this month, she said some council members might not be on board for changes to the ordinance.

Tuesday night, she noted this is one of several steps the council needs to take to be more transparent and held to a high ethical standard.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg that we’re looking at of a much bigger question,” she said. “I think it brings up the question of transparency and open government that we as a city need to have, not just the City Council.”

Conversations about the ordinance specifically were spurred by a letter in mid-August from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, when Houston-based attorney Joseph Larsen said the rule violated freedom of speech rights.

Most recently, the council was divided during a long luncheon last week to discuss ethics reform, which is slated to be continued in a January work session.