Advocate editorial board opinion: City Council must do public's business in public

June 24, 2013 at 1:24 a.m.

To discuss possible open records and open meetings violations, the Victoria City Council met behind closed doors.

Yes, you read that right, but it bears repeating:

To discuss possible open records and open meetings violations, the Victoria City Council met behind closed doors.

That sound you heard is members of the public collectively slapping their palms to their foreheads. What is the problem here? What part of doing the public's business in public do some council members not understand?

The closed session happened Tuesday because councilman David Hagan asked for an agenda item to discuss why City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz did not request a state attorney general's opinion regarding the Victoria Advocate's request last month for open records.

The answer is simple and doesn't require a closed session: Public officials should request an attorney general opinion only if the law isn't clear. They should never request one as a delaying tactic. They should never waste the public's time or the attorney general's resources for actual matters of law.

So, why couldn't the City Council discuss all of this in open session?

The city attorney advised Hagan that he could have the discussion during the public meeting if he so chose.

At first, Hagan said, "I have no preference. ... Public is fine with me unless you think there is a reason you think as an attorney that wouldn't be a prudent thing."

The city attorney offered a typical lawyer response but then added this troubling bit of logic in support of talking behind closed doors: "Once you start discussing things in public, it can be used in the future in whatever way."

Hagan quickly pounded on that opportunity to say, "Strictly for the reason then of not setting a precedent that goes far beyond this particular subject, I would like to hear the explanation in executive session."

Setting a precedent? Come again?

The City Council needs to set a precedent, but it's not the one Hagan means. Rather, the precedent needs to be to do the public's business in public.

The Victoria Advocate requested City Council emails and phone records because of questions raised about whether Hagan, Emett Alvarez, Josephine Soliz and Joe Truman met illegally to plan their vote regarding the outcome of the mayoral runoff election. These four have done their best to distract the public from this central point. They still have not fully released the requested information, putting them in violation of the state Open Records Act.

Instead, Hagan wants to talk behind closed doors about the open records request. Instead, Alvarez asked at the same meeting for a future discussion about establishing a city policy regarding council's emails and phone records.

Why would a city policy be needed when state law already is clear on the subject? All council communication about public business is public. Period. No longer policy required.

Elected officials must follow not only the letter of the law but also the spirit of government transparency. If all Victoria City Council members shared this spirit, then the sun would shine again on area government.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.



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