Fort Worth open meetings violation reveals confusing public participation process
City works to remedy failure to properly post meeting agendas for months.
The Fort Worth City Council was forced to cancel two meetings and re-ratify its actions stretching from September 2021 to March 2022 after staff discovered the city failed to post physical agendas in City Hall.
Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, local governments are required to post agendas for upcoming meetings online and physically within City Hall 72 hours before a scheduled meeting, with some exceptions.
Previous reporting by the Fort Worth Report led to the discovery that agendas for Fort Worth City Council meetings were not in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act starting from Sept. 1, 2021, to March 18, 2022.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott suspended the requirement of physical meeting notices for government meetings on March 16, 2021, after declaring a state of disaster in Texas earlier that month. The executive order, meant to prevent in-person gatherings, expired on Sept. 1, 2021.
“Although the city’s agendas were not physically posted outside of City Hall after the order expired in September 2021, all meetings were posted as required on the city’s website,” Michelle Gutt, spokesman for the city, said in a statement.
Nonetheless, failing to physically post the agendas is a violation of the Open Meetings Act, Joe Larsen, an attorney specializing in media law said. Moving forward, the city will program a kiosk in the City Hall lobby to show the meeting agendas on a digital screen, in compliance with the law.
Failure to post physical agendas within City Hall could pose a barrier to participation for residents without access to the internet, said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
An estimated 60,000 Fort Worth residents lack home internet access, according to the city.
“If they can go down and look at an agenda that’s posted publicly, physically, that helps them,” Shannon said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure everyone’s covered by our open government laws.”
To resolve the violation, the City Council passed a resolution “to re-notice those items and ratify all actions taken at those meetings.”
The resolution included over 500 pages of past agendas. The council’s actions during those months became official when the council ratified them March 29, 2022.
Along with ethical concerns, the mistake opens the city to potential legal trouble from residents impacted by any actions taken by the council while agendas were not being properly posted, Larsen said. Residents could sue to have those actions rendered invalid during the months the agendas were not physically posted.
The suit would be valid only in a very specific set of circumstances, Larsen explained. For example, if the council were to fire a city employee while agendas were not properly posted, that employee could sue to receive wages for the months the action was invalid.
“It’s not easy to get this remedy if you don’t act quickly and it’s hard to get it if too much water flowed under the bridge,” Larsen said.
While it’s possible someone could take legal action, the city believes they could successfully demonstrate that the failure to post was a misunderstanding, the city’s legal department said in a statement.
The city has previously cited technical issues to explain the absence of agendas on the city’s website. There are two places residents can typically view agendas before City Council meetings: The city calendar and Legistar, where residents can also watch meetings live. The city acknowledges agendas have previously been absent from one of the two platforms but always maintains compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act by maintaining agendas on one of the two platforms.
The result can be confusing for residents, city staff acknowledged in emails obtained by the Report.
“I am advocating for a new agenda management system that would be more stable and reliable and could be expanded,” City Secretary Jannette Goodall said in an email to legal and communications staff.
“Residents have to know where to find things on multiple web pages, which is frustrating. I, as a staff person, find it frustrating,” Goodall went on to write. “That doesn’t make it a violation of the Open Meetings Act, just not the best customer service.”
The technical issues stem from the city using two content management systems to publish agendas.
To solve the issue would require an investment from the city to replace Legistar and redesign the council meeting web pages to make it a one-stop shop for residents to find the agendas, executed documents, meeting minutes, and videos, Goodall said in the email.
By getting familiar with open meetings laws, residents can effectively advocate for the right to get involved with their local government, Shannon said. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Attorney General’s office have online resources and guides to help residents understand the Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act. The foundation also holds in-person training across the state where journalists and residents can learn more about their rights under the law.
“Everyone needs to make themselves aware of their right to know and the public’s right to access information,” Shannon said. “Individual citizens can do this and government officials can, too.”