Committee’s private meeting raises questions about compliance with Open Meetings Act

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By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

The Unified Development Code Advisory Committee, a new municipal committee intent on loosening the city’s regulations for real estate development, held a meeting behind closed doors Tuesday.

Some lawyers have called the move a possible violation of state transparency laws, which require governmental meetings to be held in public. It comes a week after committee members declared city staffers unwelcome at their meetings, accusing them of sabotaging efforts last year to revise the code.

Committee Chair Jon Branigan called Tuesday’s meeting at the municipal court building into session at 6:32 pm, then immediately made a motion to convene into executive session, citing an exception in the state’s Open Meetings Act allowing for private legal counsel. The ten committee members filed out of the main chamber to a closed room in the back of the building. When they returned nearly ninety minutes later, a unanimous motion was called to adjourn the meeting.

Branigan told the Independent on the way to his car afterwards that the committee held the meeting in private “just so we could have open conversation and refresh ourselves on stuff.”

“There was no need to have public comments or anything else,” he said.

The newspaper was the only audience in attendance.

“The Texas Open Meetings Act is liberally/broadly construed in favor of ‘open government’,” said Alan Lathrom, an attorney who has consulted the City of Liberty Hill in the past on transparency law. He said executive sessions are reserved for narrow exceptions and typically serve as a bookend for deliberations held in the open.

“I don’t know know the legality for that exception,” Austin attorney Catherine Robb, a legal expert in government transparency who represents news media clients, said about Branigan’s comments. “It really starts to raise some questions.”

While cautioning that a violation can only be determined by the courts, Robb and Lathrom both pointed to a 1983 opinion from the Texas Attorney General which says that “General discussion of policy, unrelated to legal matters is not permitted under the language of (this exception) merely because an attorney is present.”

Linda Sjogren, the attorney from the Bojorquez law firm specified as the committee’s legal counsel, was “available via phone” but not physically present in the closed session, Branigan confirmed to the Independent.

Sjogren declined to comment, as did City Attorney Dottie Palumbo, who is also from the Bojorquez law firm.

Revisions to the Unified Development Code, the rulebook specifying restrictions and requirements for new real estate developments in the city, have recently emerged as a source of tension between city staffers and committee members.

Last year the first UDC Advisory Committee was appointed by the City Council to comb through the fifteen-year-old code and come up with a list of recommended updates. Members of the committee were chosen from local developers and from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, which is predominantly made up of local developers and real estate investors.

Over a series of meetings the Advisory Committee came up with a list of recommended changes to the text, such as the creation of a “two-track” code, which would allow developers in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, an expansive zone outside the city limits but where city regulations still normally apply, to defer to the county’s less restrictive standards.

City staffers, including City Administrator Greg Boatright and City Planner Sally McFeron, advised the committee during this process, but when it came time for the City Council to vote on the recommendations, these staffers also presented their own competing alternatives. The Council ultimately voted for the staffer’s more modest changes a majority of the time.

Branigan, who joined the City Council last month after his mother Liz Branigan stepped down from her seat, reconvened the Advisory Committee as one of his first acts in office.

At that meeting June 27, a consensus was reached that city staff should not attend the committee’s public meetings. Members also stressed their continued interest in making the UDC as “least restrictive” as possible— a plan they believe would facilitate increased residential and commercial development in Liberty Hill.

The UDC Advisory Committee has scheduled its next meeting at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, July 20, at City Hall, 926 Loop 332.

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