Open Meetings: Case Closed?

A deal is near for seven current and former City Council members

Open Meetings: Case Closed?

Our long civic nightmare is finally … close to a legal settlement. Austinities woke this morning to the news of a deal between six current and one former member of the Austin City Council and the office of Travis County Attorney David Escamilla over criminal proceedings under the Texas Open Meetings Act.

For those of you who are too bleary-eyed to try your hands at the Google, the quick translation of that last sentence goes like this: Brian Rodgers.

Rodgers, you'll probably remember, sat down for a meeting with Council Member Chris Riley in December 2010. Rodgers was reportedly hoping to talk about a potential run for the council, and Riley agreed to talk with him about how things work round these parts. Both got more than they bargained for. Riley told Rodgers that council members routinely met with one and other over Council matters. Rodgers then shared that tidbit with Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who opened an investigation into the issue just about the time that it began breaking all over the local news.

The trouble with Riley's seemingly innocent statement is that it revealed a potential violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Elected officials here – like in most places – are barred from interacting with each other on city business in a way that might constitute a path to a behind-closed-doors decision. The settlement shows a potential end to criminal charges that could have resulted against Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Council Members Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison, and Riley, as well as former Council Member Randi Shade.

The deal reportedly – from both In Fact Daily and the Statesman – centers on the idea that Council Members won't face prosecution so long as they promise not to do it again. And, should Escamilla decide that violations have occurred, he can prosecute using evidence that dates all the way back to April 2010.

In a flurry of late-night statements from Council Members on it all, two stood out. The first belonged to former Shade, who probably lost her seat in the wake of a handful of not-so-kind (and not-so-illegal) emails that emerged in the wake of the scandal. “I never knowingly conspired to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act, and over this past summer I entered into an agreement for deferred prosecution in an effort to put the investigation behind me,” she wrote.

Shade's statement is a well-thought-out, single-spaced, full-page recitation of her point of view. It's worth a read in toto. She says a lot, but what might apply most broadly is her characterization of the meetings that got everyone in to so much trouble: “I never hid meetings from the public, including meetings I had with Council colleagues and City staff, and never refused a meeting with anyone.” Shade continues:

“My communication with Council colleagues, City staff, and citizens was to stimulate critical thinking and gain the broadest perspective possible on a subject matter, not to conspire to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act or hide anything from the public.”

This is a sentiment heard widely throughout City Hall – that the meetings held by council members were never about vote counting or hiding information from the public. Rather, they were simple exchanges of knowledge that might better able Council Members to make informed votes. Council Member Bill Spelman's Wednesday statement (the second of those that stood out as this story broke) to In Fact Daily may have put it best. “Of course, I’m happy that none of us will be charged. It’s good to have that behind us,” he told the online publication. "The better news is that this may help us change the subject. In addition to cooperating with Mr. Escamilla’s well-meaning inquiries, the Council and the city staff have had to spend thousands of hours over the last year and a half defending against 'gotcha' journalism and conspiracy theories." Spelman concluded:

"With the end of the County Attorney’s investigation, perhaps we can all turn our full attention to governing a great city, and solving problems like traffic, housing, and jobs.”

Still, questions linger about how – or even whether – council member will ever be able to put this episode fully behind them. We'll tackle all of that in a feature that is slated to run later this month.

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City Council, politics, open meetings act, lawsuit, David Escamilla, Brian Rodgers

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