Open Meetings Act Debate

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering an open meetings case that could change how Texas Panhandle cities and counties do business.

An Alpine council person sent an email to colleagues.

That violated the open meetings law.

They faced criminal charges but sued.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled their first amendment rights were violated.

The Texas Attorney General wants them to reconsider that decision.

When Madison Scott was first elected Commissioner he was told about the open meetings restrictions.

"We could not get together as a quorum, which means three commissioners or the mayor and two other commissioners or any number above that and because we would be allowed to make decisions on behalf of the city and that would break the open meetings act."

The lawsuit by the Alpine Council member involved in the e-mail communication claimed the Open Meetings Act violated his First Amendment rights.

Amarillo City Attorney Marcus Norris says he supports open government but says the law is draconian.

"Most states would stop by voiding the action or taking some civil penalty against the officials, but these are criminal penalties. You can go to jail for that. And it seems a harsh thing to do for citizens who enter public service for little or, in some cases, no pay."

But some say the strict penalties have served their purpose.

"It's worked. I mean, it makes elected commissioners, county, city commissioners pretty reluctant to do that. And as a result it's rare anyone has been prosecuted."

Scott says the penalties drove the point home to Commissioners.

"It made a sound was that it scared you to death because you better follow the rules and that people take this very seriously."

Next week is the deadline for the court to hear from attorneys in the case.