City officials did more than fog the lenses of government transparency Monday. By shutting out the people from a public meeting, including a Herald-Press reporter, they violated the spirit – and probably the letter – of the state's Public Information Act.
A bad decision to lock out a reporter, as well as poorly functioning audio-video equipment, embarrassed the city and kept the public from knowing most of what happened at an important council meeting. The agenda included COVID-19 measures, discussions on a longstanding lawsuit, proposed increases in the city manager's authority, and a suspension of late fees for water services.
Council members have a lot to fix before they meet again in two weeks. Meantime, facing many questions, irregularities, and probable infractions, they ought to rescind any action taken during Monday night's meeting.
On Tuesday, Mayor Steve Presley, to his credit, told the Herald-Press he would not bar media from future meetings. Pledging to keep public meetings open is smart and sensible. The city's arguments for closing Monday's meeting had no merit, but sorting out new regulations in a new world takes time. Acknowledging a mistake is a good start.
Under the governor's new amendment to the Texas Open Meetings Act, the people and media must still have access to public meetings. Moreover, for virtual viewers, the governor's declaration requires municipalities to provide a toll-free telephone number for two-way communications during meetings. In Palestine, that also was not provided Monday.
The mayor, City Manager Leslie Cloer, and city council members continued to conduct Monday's meeting, even though poor audio prevented many people watching on Facebook Live – and council members knew this – from hearing their elected representatives.
Making matters worse, the video feed later went blank, depriving people of seeing the proceedings. At that point – or even earlier – Presley should have stopped the meeting and, on Tuesday, asked the Attorney General's Office for an opinion.
Keeping out the media, considered an “essential service” during the COVID-19 emergency, is not called for in either Gov. Greg Abbott's or Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston's emergency declarations. Nor are the media mentioned in any of the emergency restrictions.
Emergency declaration prohibit gatherings of more than 10, but city council consists of only seven members – five of whom were present. That left enough room for a Herald-Press reporter and four others.
The unprecedented public health crisis posed by the coronavirus is causing genuine uncertainty among local governments on how best to meet the mandates of Texas' temporarily amended Freedom of Information Act. City officials in Palestine flunked their first test, but they can learn from their mistakes and protect the people's right to know, as well as their health and safety.