City of Odessa commits to closed-door meeting reform after newspaper’s lawsuit

By Corey Paul
Odessa American
Originally published March 20, 2018

The Odessa City Council will start keeping audio recordings of all closed-door meetings instead of written summaries, making it easier for the public to hold the officials to account if future violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act seem apparent.

The agreement stems from a settlement between the City of Odessa and the Odessa American in a lawsuit filed by the newspaper in June 2017. The suit alleged that the City Council violated the state open meetings law weeks earlier, when a majority voted to oust the head of the board overseeing economic development tax money following a closed-door discussion.

“We thought it was important not just from a media standpoint but from an open government standpoint to take them to task for not following laws that were created to keep elected officials from going into closed sessions to do whatever they want out of the public view,” OA Editor Laura Dennis said. “For too long this council had skirted the open meetings act and it was time to take action. We won’t stand for backroom deal making when the public has a right to know.”

As part of the settlement, finalized Monday, the City Council “denies it violated the Act, or if it did, the violation was only technical and resulted in no harm” to the OA or the general public.

Now, the city will be required to keep the audio records for at least two years, allowing a judge to examine the records if future lawsuits allege violations of the open meetings act. Keeping audio recordings of closed sessions goes beyond what the law currently requires.

“It sounds like even though they might not be admitting any wrongdoing, they realize they could do a lot better,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, adding that a recording provides “indisputable evidence of what was discussed, if it comes up. Hopefully this entire episode helps those public officials better understand the Texas Open Meetings Act, which they must follow. It’s the law.”

After the May 9 vote, the elected officials who were in the room refused to provide an explanation for the decision to remove the volunteer appointee, Jimmy Breaux, from the Odessa Development Corporation, despite his public requests. The City Council’s closed door session lasted about 56 minutes.

At the time, the meeting continued a pattern of secrecy by the City Council, which spent almost half the time during their regular meetings behind closed doors as they had facing the public by that point in 2017.

“It’s supposed to be exception that you are going into closed session, not the normal way of doing business,” Shannon said.

In response to the public blowback from the May 9 meeting, the City Council began meeting less often behind closed doors.

In addition to the audio recordings, the settlement calls for the city to comply with requirements of the Texas Open Meetings Act and pay part of the OA’s legal fees, $12,500.

“By settling this it is less costly to taxpayers than if we had forced it to go to trial – where the city would have lost,” Dennis said. “It was a clear violation and showed disregard for open government.”

The OA alleged that at a minimum, the City Council had failed to announce the justification for the closed meeting as the law required before they went behind closed doors.

But the OA also argued that the City Council failed to provide the proper notice of the meeting by appearing to hide the true purpose of the closed session — discussing Breaux’s removal. The public notice before the meeting called for the City Council to “consider the removal of current ODC board members prior to the expiration of their terms.”

District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales had placed that item on the meeting agenda, purportedly to discuss removal of each of the five ODC members, even their own appointees.

Before the OA’s lawsuit, the newspaper and CBS 7 filed a criminal complaint with County Attorney Dusty Gallivan alleging violations of open meetings law by the City Council.

“The meeting that was held, discussing the removal of Jim Breaux as the head of the Odessa Development Corporation, violated the Open Meetings Act,” Gallivan wrote in a May 25 letter to City Council members and former City Attorney Larry Long.

But Gallivan said the violations he found did not appear to rise to the level of a criminal offense, citing his own research and a review by a Texas Ranger. Before the OA sued, the May 9 meeting had already drawn rebukes from state open meetings experts.

“We hope other elected officials will take note that the public is watching,” Dennis said. “Follow the rules and do what the law allows and don’t try to keep public business out of the public’s eye.”