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The discussion is closed

I don’t know about this.

The mayor and city attorney are floating the idea of shutting the public out of some City Council discussions.

Houston is unusual, perhaps even unique, among Texas cities in requiring that its council always meet in public.

On Thursday, City Attorney David Feldman unveiled a proposal to authorize closed-session discussions of hirings and firings, lawsuits, real estate transactions and other matters allowed by the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Because the idea would require a change to a 70-year-old provision in the city charter, it would need voter approval. Mayor Annise Parker is considering asking the council next week to place it on the November ballot.

[...]

Councilman Jack Christie said that, based on his 14 years as a state or local school board member, he considered it “common sense” not to discuss in public details about security, for example. He also suggested that public discussion of an employee could expose the city to a defamation lawsuit.

Councilman James Rodriguez spoke most forcefully against closed meetings.

“I think our system works fine, and I’ve seen it work fine. I believe that we’ll lose a lot of good will in the community if we move to try to put this on the ballot,” Rodriguez said. “I believe in transparency. I believe that we need to hash out our issues in the public and work with the public and to have their confidence and trust that we’re going to be open and upfront with issues.”

[...]

Councilman Stephen Costello said he supports the closed-session option, but now is not the time to put it before voters.

“You incite an emotion that you really don’t want the voters to have as they walk into the ballot box,” Costello said. “What we want is voters going in and approving our bond issue, and I’d rather just have the bond issue there up for a vote, or, if we’re going to make some charter amendments, make them noncontroversial.”

On the one hand, I do think it’s appropriate for certain matters to be discussed in private, at least in theory. It’s not like this is unheard of – Commissioners Court, Metro, school boards, nearly every other city council in Texas, they all do this, for good and not so good reasons. I think the list of topics that are allowed to be held behind closed doors should be small and the reasons for doing it should be compelling, but I can see the case for it. On the other hand, I think CM Costello is exactly right – this isn’t the time to put a question about whether to allow non-open meetings on the ballot. Beyond the possibility of a referendum like this doing damage to other ballot propositions, if we’re going to examine this issue we should take our time about it and have a lot more engagement than a Council meeting or two. What’s the case that the city really needs this? Are there some examples that Feldman or Mayor Parker can cite where discussion of a sensitive topic in a normal Council meeting led to harm that might have been prevented if a closed door session had been an option? I get the theoretical case, but is there a practical one to be made as well? If there isn’t, then maybe there won’t ever be a good time to put this on the ballot. PDiddie and Campos have more.

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