Denton council fails to agree on speech ordinance

By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
Denton Record-Chronicle
Originally published Oct. 20, 2015

The Denton City Council kicked a questionable 10-year-old ordinance to its ethics committee Tuesday, after failing to agree to repeal it or even on how to modify it.

The ordinance criminalizes speech for council members who talk about city business deemed “confidential.” The Texas Freedom of Information Foundation wrote the city a letter in August saying the ordinance is likely unconstitutional.

The council also moved forward new rules for tow truck operators and heard two hours of testimony over the location for the Eagle electrical substation.

The council had not made a decision about the substation location by late Tuesday night.

Questionable ordinance

Although council members received the foundation’s letter in mid-August, they had not had a substantial discussion about the questionable ordinance until Tuesday.

In the letter, Houston-based attorney Joseph Larsen detailed how the ordinance compromises the First Amendment free-speech rights of council members, the public and the press. Denton’s ordinance makes everything discussed in closed session a confidential matter, but state law requires a city to demonstrate a compelling public interest in keeping things secret from the public.

To his knowledge, no other Texas city has such an ordinance, Larsen said.

Denton’s ordinance exposes council members to 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.

The council met in closed session about the ordinance for about an hour.

Many members of the city staff remained in the room for the closed session, including most of the legal department, the city manager and assistant city managers, and the head of Denton Municipal Electric.

When the council reconvened in open session, council member Kathleen Wazny called for the ordinance to be repealed and for any lingering concerns to be addressed in a new ethics ordinance modeled after one adopted in San Antonio.

Her suggestion got little traction. Council member Joey Hawkins said he didn’t want a council member to be able to derail something the city was working on by leaking information to the public.

“But I don’t want people to feel muzzled,” Hawkins said.

“I feel muzzled,” council member Keely Briggs said.