By Kenric Ward
Originally published June 6, 2016
An overseas trade mission by members of the San Antonio City Council is taking flack from critics who say it skirted Texas’ open-meeting law.
Six voting members of the council – constituting a quorum – traveled to Spain last month. The trip was announced in advance, with a declaration that “no official city action will be taken during this mission.”
With no reporters or members of the public present to verify the council’s pledge, skeptics aren’t assuaged.
The Texas Open Meetings Act “requires a meeting of a governmental body to be held in a location accessible to the public.”
“It thus precludes a governmental body from meeting in an inaccessible location,” states a handbook produced by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “[For example] the Board of Regents of a state university system could not meet in Mexico, regardless of whether the board broadcast the meeting by videoconferencing technology to areas in Texas where component institutions were located.”
Kelley Shannon, director of the private Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the Open Meetings Act allows a quorum of a governing body to attend a conference, if city business discussion is only incidental to the event.
“This doesn’t seem to fit that situation,” she said.
Art Martinez, an attorney who does legal work for the city of Kingsville, Texas, said the San Antonio council would have to conduct a public hearing back home before acting on any business stemming from the trip.
Acting City Attorney Martha Sepeda told Watchdog.org in a statement: “The delegation traveled on a diplomatic mission clearly allowed under state law for ceremonial, informal and social activities. No votes or official business was conducted and certainly no laws were violated.”
Local political activist George Rodriguez says that’s not good enough.
“Citizens do not know what was discussed, what meetings were held or what deals were struck by this quorum,” he complained. “How can citizens attend meetings that are held in foreign countries so they can hold these council members accountable?”
Rodriguez mocked what he called softball coverage by the local press. “They just applaud it as another effort to make San Antonio a ‘global city,’” he said.
Council members on the trade mission were Alan Warrick, Rebecca Viagran, Shirley Gonzalez, Ray Lopez, Roberto Trevino and Mayor Ivy Taylor.
At a travel cost of roughly $7,000 per politician, the Spanish junket was no bargain, says Jeff Judson, a local businessman and senior fellow with the conservative Heartland Institute.
“People are not fooled to believe that somehow our quality of life in San Antonio will improve if our elected council goes to Spain at taxpayer expense to ‘promote’ San Antonio,” he said.
“After receiving a huge pay raise from the taxpayers, it is sad that the council feels the need to also vacation in Europe on the taxpayers’ dime.”
James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the Open Meetings Act does not authorize the attorney general to take action against violators.
“This can be a major problem if local prosecutors do not pursue the matter, either due to local politics or undue deference,” Quintero said.