Wide open town

Unlike Big D, Houston thrives on open government

"We haven't had a closed-door meeting of the council in a long time," says Houston City Secretary Anna Russell. "There was one time they did go into one executive session--back in the '70s I think it was--and I believe the mayor cited the charter and refused to participate."

Russell was right. Fred Hofheinz was the mayor. It was 1975. And he remembers the incident quite well.

"It involved the selection of a city attorney," says Hofheinz, a lawyer who retired from politics when his mayoral term was up in 1978. "I had nominated the first black city attorney in the history of Houston. And the city council took the position that going into executive session to discuss him was an exception to the Texas Open Meetings Act, and I said it was not. Eventually, they voted on whether or not to vote to support his nomination in secret session, and I sat outside in the hallway while they had their little session. My picture was on the front page of the Houston Chronicle the next day."

Justice did prevail: The black attorney was supported unanimously. And the city council never met behind closed doors again--never even tried, near as anyone can recall.

Those elected officials down in Houston just don't like doing things behind the public's back. Examples abound.

Six months ago, the city attorney wanted the council to approve a $150,000 settlement he had negotiated with some people who had sued the city for wrongful demolition--the council had no problem with the amount of money, but they did have a problem with the attorney's request to seal the deal so the public wouldn't know the details of the settlement. The council refused. And like all their other legal settlements, that one was made public.

City Controller George Greanias can also tell you about the one time he asked the council to go behind closed doors to review a highly sensitive audit he had just completed on a fraud investigation involving some private supply companies that were ripping off the city.

"The city attorney and I proposed an executive session to just discuss it--we weren't asking for any action to be taken because in our system the decision to go after someone legally can be made by the city attorney and the controller," says Greanias. "But the council decided no. So we made copies of the audit report, and they came to the controller's office and received it individually."

True, the public didn't get to see the audit until the city attorney filed the lawsuit, but the council's review of it did not advance the ball any. Unlike our council, which has advanced the ball significantly over the course of a year on the arena--we've spent $500,000 on studies and countless more on staff time, for example, and it's been almost exclusively behind closed doors--the Houston city council cannot build an arena in the dark.

Greanias thinks his city's approach works best. "In the long term, especially when you have a controversial project, you're better off doing it out in public," Greanias says. "It may be more painful to do it on the front end, but in the long run, you're bringing people along with you, and that's more likely to be embraced by the public, rather than if you pop out from behind closed doors with the solution."

But popping out from behind closed doors--with done deals and smug demeanors--is what the Dallas City Council does best. Which is why, with the exception of Blumer and Fielding, who alone push for more openness, our city council will never voluntarily adopt Houston's arrangement. The mere thought of it makes some of them damn near apoplectic. Especially the new mayor.

"I can't believe that Houston acquires property or makes personnel decisions in open session," Kirk sputtered at me on the phone one evening last week. "There are some things the Texas Open Meetings Act requires you to do in closed session."

Not true, I explained to lawyer Kirk--who, it dawned on me, had somehow survived six years as an assistant city attorney and city lobbyist down in Austin without having to learn the state law regarding open meetings. The TOMA, I explained, requires that all governmental meetings be open--though it allows exceptions, all of them narrowly defined.

Also, a city's charter overrides the provisions of the TOMA, according to veteran Houston assistant city attorney Paul Bibler, who can cite chapter and verse on his city's right to ban closed-door meetings altogether.

Kirk then quickly shifted into another gear, another defense of the status quo. "They have a different form of government," he said.

True. They have a strong-mayor form of government--something Kirk can only fantasize about in his current hot pursuit of answering all of Don Carter's financial prayers. Down in Houston, Mayor Bob Lanier can go cut the deal with the private sector, just like John Ware is trying to do, but he still has to bring the deal back to the council for approval. And the minute the council gets its hands on it, it's a public free-for-all.

With that, Kirk had only one thing left to say--the thing that somehow, sadly, has become the mantra at Dallas City Hall, where more and more people just simply refuse to talk openly about important issues.

"The long-term problems we have here in Dallas aren't because we did a land deal or a personnel review in executive session," Kirk said. "The bottom-line is we're going to rebuild this city."

With or without the public's blessing, apparently.

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