The city's first attempt Monday at holding a virtual public meeting of the city council was plagued by technical issues that made video spotty and audio sometimes impossible to hear. Moreover, it may have violated the state's Open Meetings Act.
Under Gov. Greg Abbot's emergency declaration, meetings of more than 10 are prohibited. A temporary amendment to the Open Meetings Act allows municipal governments to hold meetings, as long as they provide an alternative means for public viewing.
A single Herald-Press journalist, however – a classified “essential worker” – was also barred from attending, even though only five of seven city council members were present; well under the 10-person limit.
Palestine Mayor Steve Presley said the decision to keep media out, a provision of neither the governor's nor Anderson County's emergency declarations, was made jointly by himself and City Manager Leslie Cloer.
“We briefly discussed that if we let one person in, it would have to be open to everyone,” Presley told the Herald-Press Tuesday. “When I asked [the city manager] about the press, she said the press could view it online like everyone else. It was all to do with safety and health.”
Presley told the Herald-Press Tuesday a journalist will be allowed to attend future meetings.
The meeting was made available to the public via internet streaming – provided viewers could hear – and were using the antiquated Internet Explorer web-browser.
Additionally, city officials did not provide residents a toll-free phone number, as required by the state.
“Online notices for an open meeting hosted by webinar or teleconference must include a toll-free dial-in number or a free-of-charge videoconference link in addition to the agenda packet,” the instructions read. “The dial-in number or videoconference link provided in the meeting notice must...allow for two-way communication.”
When council members reconvened after closed session, a camera glitch stopped the video feed. Rather than adjourn while problems were resolved, council members continued the meeting, and voted on issues discussed in closed-session. This was done off-camera and out of the view of the public.
“We couldn't re-establish video feed,” Presley said. “We did re-establish sound, however. We checked with the city attorney, and he felt that would be adequate.”
Although audio was regained, it had already been difficult, and at times impossible to hear throughout the meeting. Multiple viewers watching via the city's Facebook page complained about not being able to hear what council members were saying.
“You have a live meeting but you don't allow all of us to hear it,” resident Misty M. Lambert commented. “That's sad.”
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the Herald-Press the quality of the audio isn't the issue.
“They should not have continued if their chosen mode of communication [web-streaming] was unable to continue,” Shannon said. “They needed to put a hold on this.”
Shannon said decisions of what to do and when to continue were never meant to be made by local government officials, or their attorneys.
“When these temporary provisions were made public last week, the availability of the Attorney General's office for questions was made clear,” she said. “They should have gotten a ruling from the AG's office.”
New Palestine City Attorney Gary Landers disagreed.
“Like all new laws, it [Open Meetings Act amendment] must be interpreted,” Landers told the Herald-Press. “During this emergency period, what the city did was allowed. I'm not saying it was very good, but it was all we could do.
“We're on new ground here. I'm not arguing we don't have to do better, but the city council and city manager did do a good job.”
Shannon argues interpretation should not be left up to individual municipalities.
“These provisions in the Open Meetings Act that have been waived are temporary,” she said. “The government should be very diligent they continue to follow the letter, and the spirit, of the law. 'We the people' have a right to be informed.”