03-17 corona council

Palestine City Council Members, Mayor Steve Presley and City Manager Leslie Cloer discuss the city's reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the unprecedented COVID-19 public health crisis, the recently amended Texas Public Information Act provides additional leeway for local governments to use virtual access for public meetings.

Still, the law's mandate that people must know what their government is doing has not changed. In fact, it remains more compelling than ever. What government does, or does not do, has become a matter of life and death.

Attempting to act under a new emergency declaration, Palestine City Council members violated the spirit – if not the letter – of the state's open meetings law during their last regular meeting on Monday, March 23.

It started with a poor decision by Mayor Steve Presley and City Manager Leslie Cloer to lock out Herald-Press reporter William Patrick. As a member of the media, Patrick acted not only as a surrogate for the public but also an “essential service” worker under the declared emergency.

State and local emergency declarations limit gatherings to 10 or less. City council consists of only seven members – five of whom were present in council chambers – leaving ample space for Patrick.

Making matters worse, poorly functioning audio-video equipment made most of the meeting unintelligible to -- or unseen by --  those watching live on Facebook. 

Council members ought to right this wrong by re-doing, in an unequivocally open meeting, the actions they took on March 23. That night's agenda included a proposed increase in the city manager's authority, issues related to a longstanding lawsuit, and suspending water service disconnections.

Aside from affirming open and transparent government, re-doing those actions would head off potential legal problems. Actions taken during a meeting that was later declared illegal would lose their legitimacy.

Truth be told, a judicial decision on whether the March 23 meeting complied with the state's Freedom of Information Act could go either way. So why not play it safe? Re-doing the actions, including any pertinent discussion, should take 30 minutes or less during a regular meeting. That's hardly an undue burden. 

To their credit, city officials started correcting their mistakes immediately. The day after the March 23 meeting, Presley told the Herald-Press he would not bar the newspaper from future meetings.

Last week, Palestine's capable, no-nonsense city secretary, Teresa Herrera, fixed longstanding problems with the city's live Internet broadcasts, upgrading equipment and installing new software.

Now, city's broadcasts, audio and visual, are near-perfect, as evidenced by last Monday's special meeting.

For council members only one job remains: Saluting the people's right to know by re-enacting a meeting that effectively locked out many of their constituents.

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