I have been asked by many constituents how Commissioners get through the agenda in about an hour and have so little discussion about each item before we vote. I will try and explain. For more background, go here, here and here.
First, Commissioner's meetings are governed by the Texas Open Meeting Act.
The Open Meetings Act (the “Act”) was adopted to help make governmental decision-making accessible to the public. It requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, except for expressly authorized closed sessions, and to be preceded by public notice of the time, place and subject matter of the meeting. The provisions of the Act are mandatory and are to be liberally construed in favor of open government.
That's the policy. As the law is written, it is pretty simple, "every regular, special, or called meeting of a governmental body shall be open to the public,
except as provided by this chapter." That sounds easy, but the law is never as easy as it reads.
Each word in that simple sentence has a definition that is defined by the Act. You can read these definitions here. The common thread among the definitions is that there must be a quorum (3 members of the Court) present to deliberate or have a meeting.
If the Act is violated then the Court's actions could be voidable and if one conspires to circumvent the chapter then that person or persons are subject to criminal penalties.
Now, with the law out of the way comes the facts. Each Commissioner receives a separate request in draft form for each agenda item. In my office they mostly come over the fax machine. They can and do come from many departments in the County. Included with each agenda request is the back-up documentation. So far there have been no exciting agenda items. Each has been mostly mundane business of the County. One of my first requests was a request for a computer for my assistant. Hers crashed during the move and we had to have a new one. We sent out our draft to all of the Commissioners as well as the budget office and the auditor's office. We explained in our agenda request that we did not have the funds in our office to pay for the new computer and therefore it would come out of non-budgeted contingency. It was approved.
By the Monday before Court I have the draft agendas placed in a notebook where I review them to see if the backup and the request match. If I have a question about one of the items from another department I'll call that department and get them to explain it to me. At this point I'm new so I probably ask a lot of stupid questions, but mainly I'm just trying to understand what each document means.
My concern about this process lies with what occurs on the Thursday before Court. Staff members of some Commissioners have a regular meeting every Thursday and discuss the draft agenda. I believe that this meeting could (and I want to emphasize could) be in conflict with the Act. I have drafted this letter to Roy Cordes, the Fort Bend County Attorney. I believe the letter speaks for itself.
I would like to see these staff meetings open to the public. I believe that would solve all of the issues.