With important issues on the agenda of Monday's Palestine City Council meeting, such as the city's disaster declaration and expanding the city manager's authority over employee policies, city officials decided to close the meeting to the media and public.
On Monday afternoon, council members debated those issues without the media's ability to report on them, or the public's ability to hear.
Keeping the media, considered an essential service during the COVID-19 state of emergency, out of the meeting was not called for in either Gov. Greg Abbott's or Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston's emergency declarations. City officials apparently decided on their own to do it.
The emergency declarations prohibited gatherings of more than 10. The Palestine City Council, however, consists of only seven members – five of whom were present. That left enough room under the new disaster regulations for a Herald-Press reporter and four other people.
Mayor Steve Presley told the Herald-Press Monday the city would have to make exceptions for other media if it allowed the Herald-Press into the council meeting. But the Herald-Press is typically the only media present at Palestine City Council meetings.
Presley told reporter William Patrick he could watch the council meeting online, through streaming options on the city's website and Facebook.
Watching the meeting online, however, prevented Patrick from asking questions or witnessing anything that happened off-camera.
More important, poor audio quality made it difficult – often impossible – for online viewers to hear what council members were saying. Multiple complaints from residents filled the city's Facebook comments section during the meeting.
“You have a live meeting but you don't allow all of us to hear it,” resident Misty M. Lambert commented. “That's sad.”
The exception was Councilwoman Dana Goolsby, who tried to speak loudly and clearly so that the council's online audience could hear her.
“We have got to fix the sound,” Goolsby told council members during work-session. “We have 15 million excuses as to why the sound might be crappy, but we have to work more quickly and do it now for the residents.”
City Secretary Theresa Herrera said a computer with upgraded sound cards, and better video equipment, had been ordered. Herrera's voice, however, was not clear enough for online viewers to hear when this equipment is coming.
On Monday, Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, was unavailable for comment on whether city council members violated the state's public information and open meetings laws Monday by closing the meeting to the Herald-Press.