Wide open town

Unlike Big D, Houston thrives on open government

It was the dawn of a new day at Dallas City Hall.
The city's freshly minted, first African-American mayor--Ron "the-blame-game-is-over" Kirk--had finally slipped into the lead chair in the city's council chambers. It was his first day actually running a council meeting--his first real opportunity to seize his electoral mandate and lead his fellow elected officials into a new promised political era of peace, harmony and prosperity.

True, it wasn't the smoothest transition of power anybody had ever seen.
The new mayor clearly hadn't spent the previous evening clutching a copy of Robert's Rules of Order to his pillow (he'd spent it speaking to a group of women Realtors, actually). And he quickly showed that he didn't like being reminded of his lack of knowledge on parliamentary procedure--at least not when his tutor was councilman Paul Fielding, who, not unlike a puppy who had jumped up and soiled the new mayor's trousers, was verbally smacked on the nose by his fearless leader for merely raising a point of order on a matter.

And so it became a day of multiple historic firsts. Just not all of them good.

"I've never seen two executive sessions before," two-time councilwoman Donna Blumer told me, looking over the day's agenda and pointing to the two closed-door meetings that were scheduled. "I've just reread my charter, and it says executive sessions should be kept to a minimum. But instead, they almost dominate every meeting we have."

And it's a certainty that under our new mayor it's only going to get worse.
As a matter of fact, when City Secretary Bob Sloane received his copy of the agenda two weeks ago for Wednesday's meeting, he was surprised to see one executive session on the agenda, never mind two.

"Mayor (Steve) Bartlett just did not want executive sessions to be held unless they were absolutely necessary on a voting agenda day because they took too much time," Sloane told me. "So there were never any executive sessions on the regular agenda."

Don't misunderstand. Bartlett never met a closed-door meeting he didn't like. He just wanted to ghetto-ize those meetings, relegating them to alternate Wednesdays--to the council's more informal briefing days. In reality, there were plenty of executive sessions held on formal voting days because the city manager and city attorney often threw an executive session on the updated agendas that were posted just a few days before the meeting.

Now, though, under our new mayor of unity and inclusiveness, no one's even giving lip service to openness. Kirk's first big day in charge saw a shameful 60-40 split between public discussion and private scheming, respectively.

The day went like this: An hour in public, some of it listening to the paltry five citizens who are allowed to speak their minds before the biweekly meeting. Then it was an hour behind closed doors discussing pending litigation with the city attorney.

After that, the council reappeared before the masses for 75 minutes to discuss such earth-shattering matters as committee appointments, renewal of a carpet-cleaning contract at city hall, and whether or not to continue leasing public land to The Dallas Morning News for a song for their news boxes--an item that some council members found distasteful, but not newly re-elected Al Lipscomb, who stressed openly that he wouldn't dream of doing anything against the mighty News for fear of offending its editorial board, which he said he might need when it came time for re-election. (Trust me, this was not a joke.)

The council then took a one-hour lunch. It came back for two deadly boring hours of zoning cases. Then it was back behind closed doors for 90 minutes, during which time council members discussed the only meaty, interesting topic of the day--the one thing that engaged citizens listening on the radio or sitting in council chambers surely wanted to hear.

"I've asked this question in the past," Donna Blumer piped up, just before the council disappeared into the closed-door sports arena briefing. "May I ask the city attorney if there is anything that we will be discussing regarding the sports facility that could possibly be discussed in open session?"

Reluctantly, City Attorney Sam Lindsay approached the podium. This was not exactly a happy man. U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall had just issued an opinion the week before castigating him for his Swiss cheese-like legal advice on this very subject. And it was clear to anyone who had read the judge's opinion that Lindsay either didn't understand the Texas Open Meetings Act, or he just didn't feel like making the council follow it.

(It's not a tough law to figure out. Basically, city councils must meet in public, though there are four reasons they can cite for going behind closed doors during a public meeting. They are discussions of personnel matters, consultations with the city attorney, certain matters of safety and security, and sensitive real estate deliberations involving, specifically, "the purchase, exchange, lease, or value of real property.")

"One aspect that probably could be discussed is the condemnation process," Lindsay said. "If there's anything else that can be [discussed] in open session, I will tell the council they need to do that."

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