Are advisory committees subject to Texas Open Meetings Act?

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By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

Are city advisory committees subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act?

The short answer is no. The complete answer is more complicated, and hinges on the presence of Council members on the committee.

Liberty Hill City Council Member Jon Branigan began the meeting of the Unified Development Code Advisory Committee last Thursday by saying that because the committee is not a government body, it is not subject to the Open Meetings Act. Nevertheless, he said, they would continue to post meetings publicly for the sake of transparency, but not as a requirement.

Branigan, a real estate agent and developer, chairs the UDC Advisory Committee.

Branigan also said that on the counsel of the City’s attorney, committee members should not discuss what happens in closed executive sessions.

A legal handbook about the Open Meetings Act from the Texas Municipal League makes it clear that “a committee created by a governmental body is not subject to the Act if it is purely advisory in nature.”

It goes on to say that there are several exceptions mostly centered on its relationship to the governing body — the city council.

It reads that one important factor is “the presence of members of the governing body on the committee, because even though they may constitute less than a quorum of the governing body, they may lack only the consent of one more member of the governing body to pass the committee’s decision.”

Council Member Wendell McLeod also sits on the committee with Branigan.

For the last six months, the Council has been conducting the business of the City with four members in total. Council Member Ron Rhea has been absent due to health complications. Mayor Connie Fuller cannot vote expect to break a tie.

The Texas Government Code states that a council member’s three consecutive absences makes the position vacant unless the member is sick.

Last week, The Independent reported that the advisory committee’s second meeting July 5 raised questions concerning the Open Meetings Act. The meeting was posted publicly, but held privately for its entire duration.

The Open Meetings Act is a state law that requires government bodies to post and hold their meetings publicly, with exceptions made for closed door executive sessions under narrow conditions.

At the beginning of the meeting July 5, Branigan said that the committee was retreating for consultation with legal counsel, which state law allows.

However, after the meeting Branigan said that it was held behind closed doors so members could have “open conversation.” He said that no legal counsel was given, and later gave the statement that legal representation was “available via phone” but declined to elaborate if an attorney had been contacted.

Sometime after the committee’s second meeting the City’s website was changed to list the Unified Development Code Advisory Committee’s agendas under a subheading titled “Unified Development Code Ad Hoc Committee.”

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