Ethics Board to Study Open Meetings Authority After City Drops RNC Bid

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The Ethics Review Board meets on July 11 in City Hall.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The Ethics Review Board has 11 members, one from each council district and one mayoral appointee.

The City’s Ethics Review Board (ERB) is discussing whether it could – within state rules – investigate any alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by the City Council, commissions, or committees.

The discussions come after City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) asked District Attorney Nico LaHood to look into whether the Council violated state open meetings laws when it held a closed-door discussion last week about a potential bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Brockhouse briefly attended the ethics board meeting Tuesday at City Hall at which the board decided to form a five-member panel to delve into whether it could claim jurisdiction over compliance with open meetings laws. The panel will bring its findings to the full board, which could then make recommendations.

The ERB has already spent months discussing potential changes to the City’s ethics code, including campaign finance rules.

Board Chairwoman Adriana Garcia said it’s not known yet how long the panel will take to examine the open meetings issue or which members will be on the panel, because some ERB members are new to the group.

At the board meeting, Brockhouse said that he felt the issue surrounding the RNC bid “had risen to such a level that the public trust has been violated.”

Following an executive session on May 3, Mayor Ron Nirenberg told local reporters that most Council members agreed the City should not submit a bid to host the convention out of concerns that the event could draw civil unrest, and overburden public safety and sanitation personnel.

Nirenberg has said the closed session fell under the scope of economic development, a topic of open session exception allowable by state law.

Brockhouse told the Ethics Review Board that his complaint questions whether violations occurred when Nirenberg decided to have a closed meeting and then announced afterward that the city would not submit a bid, and during the actual closed-door talks.

Brockhouse asked board members what they thought about a wider question – whether the City has any power to fully ensure its policymaking and advisory bodies follow the Texas Open Meetings Act. He also inquired about the process by which any person could make a formal claim of a violation.

“My goal really is to get transparency and open government,” Brockhouse said. “That’s it. Why I’m here tonight is to see what the [City] attorneys say about a citizen’s right to make a claim.”

According to City Attorney Andy Segovia, the existing city charter spells out what type of ethics complaints the ERB can investigate. Even if the board could suggest a way to ensure that the Council, committees, and commissions fully comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act, Segovia said, such measures cannot exceed the state law itself.

“The jurisdiction of the ERB is laid out pretty specifically by the city charter,” he said.

Board member Wade Shelton asked whether adding an investigative charge for the ERB to the ethics code would be enough to allow the board to examine future complaints of open meetings act violations. Such an addition to the ethics code, Shelton said, could also facilitate a formal process by which a person could easily lodge a formal complaint of an open meetings violation.

Currently, a complaint about an open meeting violation is filed with a district court or with a district attorney.

First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio said the board could explore what may not currently be in the Texas Open Meetings Act that could be applicable toward investigating local violation allegations, and how best to remedy those claims.

“This is something that wouldn’t be creating a redundancy of something that’s already covered by the act,” she said.

Provencio said the board could explore what may not currently be in the Texas Open Meetings Act that could be applicable toward investigating allegations of local violations, and how best to remedy those claims.

“This is something that wouldn’t be creating a redundancy of something that’s already covered by the act,” she said.

Board members agreed that having a small panel to focus on open meetings law would be helpful.

“What I’ve seen and heard here is a good idea,” said board member Patrick Lang. “We can get deeper into it.”

Board member Magdalena Alvarado said the RNC bid controversy has polarized the community, and that the ERB could at least do its part to see whether it could have a say on open meetings.

“I don’t know whether the open meetings act was violated, or the spirit of it, but I do know a lot of people are upset,” she said.

The ERB did not discuss, as scheduled, campaign finance reform. Garcia said discussions on that issue will continue.

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