, Port Arthur, Texas

March 13, 2013

Keep Texas government operating in the sunshine

The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — If Port Arthur Mayor Deloris “Bobbie” Prince tweeted her opinion about an item on the upcoming council agenda, and four members of the council followed her Twitter account and read her tweet, would they have violated the spirit of the Texas Open Meetings Law? That law forbids a quorum of a governmental body from discussing public business without following specific procedures for informing the public that a meeting will take place.

This week, known as Sunshine Week to focus attention on laws guaranteeing the public access the governmental bodies they fund, is an appropriate time for Texas lawmakers to consider modernizing the state’s Open Meetings Act, one of the best in the nation but behind the times in terms of the new ways we have to communicate with each other.

Another what if: Imagine the Port Arthur ISD school board was considering a change in curriculum and Trustee Gregory Flores posted on his Facebook page how he thought the superintendent’s recommendation was, well, no matter what he thought of it, if he posted with his cell phone how he intended to vote and other members of the board received an alert on their cell phones, they clearly would be communication about an item of public business outside the meeting. But there’s nothing in the 40-year-old Open Meetings Act about the Internet or social media.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has proposed legislation that would take steps toward bringing the Texas Open Meetings law into the Internet age. His proposal would allow governing boards to exchange thoughts and ideas in an electronic forum that is open and accessible to the public, much like people share ideas on Facebook.

The bill would allow public officials to communicate, and would allow the public access to the conversation. Even though the bill would allow communication between officials, they could not take official action except in an open meeting.

Changes in the way we communicate are taking place at a rapid pace, and they change the way business is conducted. E-mail is regularly used in a business setting. Facebook and Twitter are becoming common ways for businesses to communicate with their customers. It’s natural for those methods of communication to be used in government and by elected officials.

Texas has a tradition of open government that we must safeguard. We encourage our legislators to join with Sen. Watson to make sure the Open Meetings Act keeps pace with this new age of online communication. That will ensure government in this state continues operating in the sunshine.