Questions raised about whether Collin commissioners’ meeting with Cruz violated law

By Wendy Hundley
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Feb. 14, 2014

Questions have been raised about whether a recent meeting involving a quorum of Collin County commissioners violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz met with a number of local elected officials on Feb. 7 at the Commissioners Court in McKinney. There was no public notice of the meeting, where water, transportation, economic development and other issues were discussed.

County Judge Keith Self, who attended the meeting with Commissioners Mark Reid and Chris Hill, said public notice wasn’t needed. “It wasn’t an official Commissioners Court meeting, and we weren’t discussing Collin County business,” Self said Friday.

He said the commissioners did not discuss issues. “There was no need for us to post [the meeting],” Self said. “The three of us weren’t going to be deliberating county business.”

Others disagree.

“That is a violation of the open meetings law,” former Collin County Commissioner Phyllis Cole said. “There should not have been three of them in a meeting discussing county business.”

Cole said she’s asked the Texas Rangers to investigate. “I cannot in good faith ignore it,” she said.

Tom Gregor, a Houston attorney who is an expert on open government law, said he also believes the meeting violated the law.

The key legal issue, he said, is whether the commissioners discussed issues, in general or specific terms, that they deal with for the court.

“If there’s a quorum present in which they are discussing public business or policy that the government body has authority over, that’s a public meeting, and they have to post it,” Gregor said.

If only one or two of them had attended, there would have been no quorum of the five-member commission.

Cole said she’s received 30 to 40 calls and emails from concerned residents. “Most of the last two days I’ve spent on the phone answering the question ‘Was this an illegal meeting?’ and explaining yes, it was,” she said.

Reid said he didn’t speak at the meeting but recalled that Obamacare was among the topics discussed.

“There was no discussion about policies that the court has any jurisdiction over,” said Reid, who faces two challengers in the March 4 Republican primary. “That’s the distinction.”

But Cole pointed out that the commissioners court oversees health care for indigent residents.

Hill could not be reached for comment, but he summarized the meeting in “The County Line” newsletter this way: “Among the topics of discussion were transportation, economic development and recovery, out-of-control federal & state debt, and federal government intrusion into state and local responsibilities.”

“That’s county business,” said Cole, who was a commissioner for 18 years. “The county is very involved in roads and development and interacting with the federal government to get funding.”

Self said Cruz was the keynote speaker for the Collin County Republican Party’s 46th annual Lincoln Day Dinner at the Plano Centre on Feb. 7. The senator invited a number of elected officials to meet with him earlier in the day, Self said.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to talk about the issues,” said Self, who offered to hold the hourlong meeting in the Commissioners Courtroom in McKinney. “He asked the question ‘What are the major issues you’re dealing with?’ Transportation got a lot of attention. Water got some attention.”

Self said the meeting was an informal discussion rather than Cruz delivering a speech.

“A small group of elected officials appreciated Senator Cruz listening to our local issues and discussing solutions,” Self posted on his Facebook page after the meeting.

About 20 people attended the meeting, Self said. Two other Collin County commissioners did not attend: Cheryl Williams and Duncan Webb.

Williams said she knew of the meeting but did not attend because of prior engagements.

Webb said he did not attend mostly because of his busy schedule. But he had another reason.

“I had some concerns about open meetings. That came to mind,” Webb said. “I would have tried to find out what was going to be discussed and if it was posted.”

He said he would have declined the invitation if he learned that a quorum would be attending and that prohibited items would be discussed.

AT A GLANCE: What the law says

The Open Meetings Handbook published by the Texas attorney general says: “When a quorum of the members of a governmental body assembles in an informal setting, such as a social occasion, it will be subject to the requirements of the act if the members engage in a verbal exchange about public business or policy. The act’s definition of a meeting expressly excludes gatherings of a ‘quorum of a governmental body at a social function unrelated to the public business that is conducted by the body.’”