Wide open town

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There are people, in other words, who see that openness in government is important--especially when you need to convince large masses of people that the No. 1 priority in an aging, cash-strapped city is a spanking-new $142 million arena for professional basketball players to run around in.

Houston, Texas' largest city, toys with this idea of building a new sports arena too, mind you. But there's one enormous difference between us and them. A mind-boggling difference actually: Houston's city charter prohibits the 15-member city council from meeting behind closed doors. Ever. "All meetings of the Council and of all committees thereof shall be open to the public..." Sec. 3 of the Houston city charter states.

And it's been this way since 1942 when the citizens of Houston voted in a charter election to ban all executive sessions of the council.

"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."

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Laura Miller

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