RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas (ValleyCentral) — A new law could soon make it easier to find out what your local government is up to. City and county organizations must now post information about open meetings online.
The Texas Open Meetings Act states that notice of a public meeting must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public. But if you wanted to find out when a meeting took place, or what was on the agenda, it was not always easy or convenient.
“Generally, that was done at City Hall or wherever the government that was subject to this publication existed,” Democratic State Representative Terry Canales of Edinburg explained. “They put it on their building. You’d have to have driven to that place and gone to do it.”
Canales represents District 40, which covers a large portion of Hidalgo County. He said he believed that most people did not know what was going on at their local city council meetings because of a lack of access to information. This past legislative session, he introduced House Bill 3440, which was signed into law by the Governor and took effect September 1. The law required a variety of government agencies to post notice of a meeting, including its agenda, online.
We took a look at three cities in Hidalgo County to see how they were faring with the law.
First, we looked at Progreso. We spoke with City Clerk Raul Garcia, who said the city was reviewing the law and would get back to us this week. The city’s website had no information about any government meetings. On Facebook, there was only an unofficial page for the city.
Canales said he believed websites like Facebook were covered by his legislation.
“They are websites,” he said. “You are landing at a site that is owned, operated and maintained by that local government.”
Our next stop was La Villa. Its website had only one meeting agenda posted, for a meeting scheduled on December 14 of last year. La Villa’s Facebook page also had only one notice of a public hearing. That notice was posted the morning of July 10, which was the same day the meeting was scheduled to take place. City Administrator Tony Barco, who accepted his job with the city on October 2, said he had just found out about the law. He said the City Commission was scheduled to hold a meeting this week. He added that as soon as the agenda was ready, he would contact the city’s IT Department and have it posted.
Rep. Canales said the requirement to be in compliance with HB 3440, was to put forth a good faith effort. He said it was not his intention to create legislation that was a “gotcha.”
“What we’re trying to do, is foster a more transparent government across the board,” Canales said. “If for some reason the person who does the posting couldn’t access it, or ill, or something. You know, a good faith effort is what the law requires, and I think that’s what we should require of everybody. Good faith.”
Finally, we looked at Edcouch, which had a link on its homepage for city meetings. However, an error message appeared on the page, saying it could not be found. The Edcouch Facebook page contained no notices of any meetings or agendas for the city. We attempted multiple times to contact the City Manager, but as of publication, we have not received any replies to our inquiries.
Canales said the public has the responsibility to be informed, and he hopes the law gives everyone that opportunity. He said that often, people do not know what issues their local governments are considering, until after the fact.
“We’re using the technology that we have available to eliminate, not only excuses from the public for not being involved but for people saying the government didn’t tell them what was going on,” he said.