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Council action scrutinized

By DAVID TEWES
Dec. 8, 2010 at 6:08 a.m.


The city council vote on the Riverside parking issue has raised questions about whether the public was adequately notified.

The item was on the agenda under the heading of "City Manager Reports." The specific item read "Riverside parking lot update."

A 2008 Texas attorney general opinion states that notice items such as a "city manager's report" amplified by other generalized descriptions of the report did not comply with the notice requirement of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The opinion states the "general and generic nature of the notice" did not sufficiently notify the public of the subject of the update and reports to be discussed.

Charles Daughtry, an attorney for Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the Victoria notice probably didn't violate the letter of the law, but probably violated the spirit of the law.

"The whole purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to let somebody decide whether an issue interests them enough to attend the meeting," he said. "If the casual voter in your county read that, they wouldn't have known and wouldn't have attended the meeting if it was of importance to them."

Generally the more important an issue is, the more detail that should be disclosed on the agenda, Daughtry said.

Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation, said the purpose of meeting agendas is to give the public sufficient notice of what elected officials are going to discuss and act on.

"When elected officials are so vague that all they put is a 'staff report,' there is no way that any citizen, regardless of how engaged they may be in the process, could tell from that (A) what they're going to be discussing and (B) whether or not they plan to take any action," he said.

City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz said he feels there was sufficient notice on the agenda that council action was possible.

He said the top of each agenda states the council will meet, consider, deliberate and may take action on the agenda items.

"That statement is there as kind of a catchall to say we can vote on anything that's on the agenda, even if it's not listed as an action item or a discussion item," Gwosdz said. "We don't separate things out to say that they are solely action items or nonaction items."

Small print at the bottom of each council agenda also states, "Resolutions, ordinances and other actions concerning any word, phrase or other subject may be voted, regardless of any language of limitation found in this agenda or any document referring to such action."

"The agenda is very deliberately set up so that anything that we put on there, we can vote on if that's what council wants to do." Gwosdz said. "The reason we do that, our course, is because when you come into your meeting, you have to be prepared for contingencies."

He said the agenda is not intended to be deceptive and is not deceptive. But Gwosdz said he wouldn't be doing his job if he trapped the council and prevented it from taking action.

Council Member Gabriel Soliz said he didn't think the parking was an item that would be voted on because it was listed under "City Manager Reports."

He said he thought it was meant to be a simple report that the council could discuss.

"But at no point in time was I informed via e-mail or phone or even a quick note before the meeting we were going to vote on this," he said. "That's why I feel like this is really dirty pool."

Mayor Will Armstrong said at a previous meeting, the staff was instructed to go back and study the parking proposal again and bring a proposal back. That's what it did, he said.

"There was no one on the council nor the city attorney who had any thought on this subject other than we would visit this subject again and we would vote on it," Armstrong said. "I stand by my decision that this is good for all of us."

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