State water conference raises open meetings questions

By Jo Clifton
Austin Monitor
Originally published Jan. 24, 2017

An attorney for the nonprofit League of Independent Voters of Texas warned the Texas Water Development Board on Sunday that the agency was in jeopardy of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. However, by the end of the day Monday, it appeared that the agency and the nonprofit had reached an accommodation.

The board is sponsoring a conference about water issues called Water for Texas 2017, with members of the agency’s three-member board of directors as well as movers and shakers in state government, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, in attendance. The conference started with a reception Monday night and continues with speakers and workshops through Wednesday. In general, the public may attend if they pay the $525 admission fee, according to the agency’s website.

Bill Aleshire, attorney for the independent voters group, sent a letter to the attorney for the water board Sunday, stating that the conference is in fact a meeting of the agency’s board. A quorum of the board will be in attendance, Aleshire noted, and the agency is the sponsor.

Therefore, Aleshire argued that the agency was holding a meeting of its board of directors and the agenda should be posted on the Secretary of State’s website. “We encourage the TWDB to reconsider the way this event is being handled and, at a minimum, announce that the meeting is open to any member of the public who desires to attend and exercise their rights provided by the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Aleshire wrote.

According to a press release from the independent voters group, “The people of Texas have a vital interest in water. Yet, the Texas Water Development Board is, in essence, holding a secret meeting – what they call a ‘unique opportunity’ available only to their invited presenters and those who pay $525 to attend – to set their course on water allocation issues. If there was ever an issue where transparency should rule and dissenting opinions ought to be heard, it is the big issue of water.”

However, Todd Chenoweth, interim general counsel for the board, wrote back to Aleshire, stating, “The Board has planned this conference carefully so that no two board members will ever be present at any of the presentations where information is exchanged about the public business or public policy over which the governmental body has supervision or control.

“As you can see from the conference agenda, at times individual board members will be hosting panel discussions on different topics at the same time. The only time that Board members will attend an event at the same time is during the ceremonial awards banquet on Tuesday evening,” therefore the conference does not constitute a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, Chenoweth concluded.

Aleshire told the Austin Monitor that he advised Chenoweth that his clients, whose members seek to protect the state’s water resources and private property rights, would be willing to attend the conference without eating at the luncheon and banquet. However, Aleshire said that Chenoweth refused that offer on Sunday.

On Monday, TWDB spokeswoman Merry Klonower said, “There are costs associated with putting on a conference, such as venue fees. The registration costs allow the agency to cover conference costs.”

However, in answer to a direct question, Klonower told the Monitor that those who do not pay the admission fee “may attend the sessions but they may not eat.” She said about 400 people had signed up to attend the conference as of midafternoon on Monday.

Shortly after that, Aleshire received an email from Chenoweth confirming that members of the public may attend so long as they do not eat or disrupt the proceedings.

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who received a copy of the exchanges between Aleshire and Chenoweth, said the issue was not about whether the public could attend without payment, but whether there would be a quorum of the members of the board in any one room at a time. So long as that does not happen, except for ceremonial proceedings, Escamilla said he does not foresee a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

In addition to the funds it is collecting from people attending the conference, the board said on its website that the following companies or agencies were among those sponsoring the conference: the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, Clark Resources, Hilltop Securities, Associated General Contractors, Hydromodel Host, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, SludgeNet Dewatering Systems, CoBank, Enviro Water Minerals Company and several others.

Late Monday, Linda Curtis, longtime leader of the independent voters group, told the Monitor that she had been allowed to register for the conference without paying the fee. Among those who are likely to attend along with Curtis are landowner and attorney Michele Gangnes, “who has fought for the last 17 years to protect the coveted Simsboro formation of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer underlying Lee, Burleson, Milam and Bastrop counties,” according to a news release from the group.

Gangnes said, “This event is an extension of the way the public was treated during the interim session by state Sen. Charles Perry, (who had been) reappointed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to chair the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs. Those most personally affected by the battles over groundwater were rebuffed when they requested the opportunity to testify with other invited witnesses at Perry’s interim committee hearings.

“Now those same rural landowners who want both to conserve the groundwater they own and protect our aquifers from being drained by profiteers, to the detriment of all Texans, are effectively excluded once again. TWDB’s high-dollar event will provide access to decision-makers by those same water purveyors, municipalities and special interests already favored by Sen. Perry.”

According to a press release from the agency, “Senator Charles Perry, Senator Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, Representative Eddie Lucio III, and Representative Lyle Larson will share their insights during the ‘Eye on the Future: Policy Issues for the 85th Legislative Session’ panel moderated by Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.”