Houston City Attorney David Feldman proposed a new plan to allow for “closed-session discussions of hirings and firings, lawsuits, real estate transactions and other matters allowed by the Texas Open Meetings Act” (see here). Feldman said, “‘Contrary to what some might say, and that is that this is a move away from transparency, I believe that just the opposite is true. We are oftentimes – this administration, any administration of the city – accused of bringing matters to council as a fait accompli. The reason that that’s the case is that we can’t have an executive session like everybody else in the state of Texas to discuss these things before they’re placed on the agenda for action.’”
Mayor Parker ultimately decided not to try to put this proposition up on the ballot in November, but the idea is interesting. The Open Meetings Act “was adopted to help make governmental decision-making accessible to the public. It requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, except for expressly authorized closed sessions, and to be preceded by public notice of the time, place and subject matter of the meeting.” Basically the council members and mayor are prohibited from getting together and discussing city matters unless they open the meeting up to the public. It sounds reasonable, but, as with most things in life, there are pros and cons:
Pros to open meetings:
– Less likely to have under the table deals.
– We elect people to represent us, and we should know their thoughts and opinions.
– Transparency in government is always a good thing.
Cons to open meetings:
– Council meetings are soooooooooooo long. Members ask questions that they should have already asked, and then many of them talk and repeat what others said just to make a point. Closed meetings might allow some of their questions to be answered without dragging out council meetings. Honestly, who besides reporters, staffers, and me really sit through the meetings? It might be open, but who is watching?
– A closed meeting might allow members to work out sound policy ideas without worrying about politics and their next election.
One interesting note about closed meetings is that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was completely closed and secretive. The delegates wanted nothing to leak out before their final draft was complete. They also wanted to be able to speak freely. The Convention was actually so secretive that windows and doors were closed, and no one was allowed in without signed credentials (from The Real George Washington, the True Story of America’s Most Indispensable Man by the National Center for Constitutional studies – I highly recommend it. It’s a long book, but it’s really good). I think the delegates at the Convention had good reasons for keeping this meeting secretive. Primarily if anything from the meeting leaked and was printed in the paper, it could take months before people were able to read it. By then the ratification fight already began, and the delegates needed to make sure that people received the real and final information, not bits and pieces from the discussion.
Clearly closed meetings have their time and place, but it was wise to not proceed with this proposal. Ultimately in today’s age of technology, I don’t think the public would have voted in favor of making this charter amendment, and the prospect of it might have made people angry and wonder what the city is hiding.