Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Texas Open Meetings Act

HISD has a lawsuit against the TEA over that ethics investigation

I missed the first act of this story, but that’s okay because this is where it gets interesting.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board are seeking to stop the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected trustees following a state investigation into alleged misconduct, arguing the agency conducted a “one-sided investigation” that reached conclusions “unsupported by any credible evidence.”

In an amended lawsuit filed Friday, lawyers for the nine-member board cite several ways in which agency leaders violated trustees’ rights and failed to fully investigate allegations of wrongdoing. The lawsuit comes two weeks after TEA investigators determined several trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, improperly influenced district contracts and overstepped their governance role — allegations denied by the HISD board’s lawyers.

The 49-page complaint argues that TEA officials were determined from the outset of the inquiry to oust HISD’s school board, failed to fully investigate allegations and incorrectly applied the law to their findings. In addition, the lawsuit alleges the agency is violating federal civil rights laws by only replacing school boards in districts where a majority of residents are people of color.

“TEA intends to punish the district by replacing Houston ISD’s elected board of trustees with an unelected board of managers — a sanction that is unavailable under the law and facts of this case,” David Campbell, a lawyer hired by HISD’s school board, wrote in the complaint.

[…]

TEA officials already had appointed a conservator to oversee the district due to chronically low performance at several campuses. Appointing a state board of managers is considered the next most serious sanction at the agency’s disposal. Morath has not issued a final decision, which likely will come in the next several weeks.

The HISD board’s lawsuit, however, seeks to negate virtually all of the TEA’s findings and stop Morath from replacing the board. Trustees originally filed the suit in June, seeking to preempt possible state sanctions resulting from any finding that board members violated the open meetings law. Friday’s amended petition expands trustees’ defense in response to specific allegations by TEA investigators.

Lawyers for the trustees argue that board members did not violate the Texas Open Meetings Act because they did not meet together as a group of five or talk about replacing Lathan.

“At the time of these discussions, no board members discussed any terms of employment, or any other matters regarding the potential appointment of Dr. Saavedra as interim superintendent,” Campbell wrote.

As noted, this lawsuit is about the results of the ethics investigation. That investigation began in January and expanded to include things beyond the original open meetings complaint. The lawsuit was filed in June, and if there was a story about that I missed it. I’m not going to comment on the merits of this lawsuit or its likelihood to succeed – in addition to Not Being A Lawyer, I haven’t had a chance to read the thing yet – but as noted even if this succeeds then the HISD Board is still not out of the woods because of the accountability ratings. Oh, and yesterday was the filing deadline, and none of the four trustees up for re-election had filed as of the weekend; I don’t know yet who’s in and who’s not, but will have an update on that by tomorrow. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

Texas Education Agency officials have recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace Houston ISD’s locally elected school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some trustees, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators.

The recommendation and findings, issued by TEA Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt, will not become final until HISD officials have had an opportunity to respond. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust HISD’s school board. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to respond, and Morath likely would issue a final decision in the following weeks.

In his recommendation, Hewitt wrote that HISD trustees should be replaced by a state-appointed board due to their “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed.”

[…]

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by HISD’s much-maligned school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust. Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in the summer and fall of 2018 when trustees clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who took over as interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s abrupt departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with Lathan, believing she had not been responsive to their desires for the district and failed to adequately protect them from a threat posed by a community activist.

Through interviews and a review of text messages, state investigators determined the five trustees — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent. The meetings took place at a Houston restaurant on the same day in October 2018, the report said. Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires trustees to conduct district business in public.

Three days later, the five trustees voted to replace Lathan with Saavedra, offering no advance warning to the public or the other four board members about the move. Trustees reinstated Lathan within a week of the vote following intense public backlash. Lathan remains the district’s indefinite leader.

TEA officials interviewed trustees as part of their investigation, ultimately determining that Dávila and Lira falsely claimed in interviews with investigators that they only met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

In an interview Wednesday, Dávila said she provided her best recollection of meeting Saavedra to TEA investigators, and denied that she attempted to mislead state officials.

“They wanted us to remember things that happened six, seven months prior to us being interviewed,” Dávila said.

So in the end it will be the ethics investigation that brings down the Board. We’ll get the performance results for the schools, including the four that needed to meet standards this year, on August 15, so there may be another cause for the demise, but this one came first. This isn’t final yet – the Board has until the 15th to respond to this report, and then TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gets to make his ruling – but the handwriting on the wall is quite clear. The state is stepping in to take over the HISD Board.

The report isn’t public yet – I presume it will be by the time Morath issues his ruling – but the Chron got to see it. The other misconduct allegations reported in the story apply to Diana Davila, with Sergio Lira also being accused of not being truthful to investigators. I feel like in other circumstances, with a Board that wasn’t already under a conservator, this would be an embarrassment but not the end of the existing Board. In such other circumstances, I might be moved to outrage at the prospect of our democratically elected Board being summarily replaced, even if only for a couple of years, by state-selected trustees. I find it hard to muster any such reaction this time. I find myself resignedly in agreement with this:

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who frequently has criticized colleagues who voted to oust Lathan, said replacement of the school board is “sadly, unfortunately” in the district’s best interests.

“I think it’s tragic, but I think the alternative is worse,” Jones said.

The good news, such as it is, is that the four schools in question, which have been making progress, will probably not be closed. That was a huge point of contention with the parent groups. If that’s truly off the table, then my guess is that reaction to this will be somewhat more muted. Who is going to step up to defend the current board, and demand that the TEA leave them in place?

It should be noted that there will still be elections for HISD trustees this November. These elected trustees, along with the others that are not on the November ballot, will still serve but have much less power in the interim. At least two of the four trustees whose terms are up this year (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is running for HCC Board, and Jolanda Jones) have announced they are not running for re-election, with Davila being rumored to not run again as well. If the end result of all this is that in another two or four years we get to elect nine new members, and (hopefully) the sword of Damocles that is the academic standards issue is not looming over us when we do (good luck with that, whoever the TEA picks to run the place), I find it hard to be too upset about that. I’m certainly not more upset than I am about everything that led to this.

How long will that TEA ethics investigation of HISD take?

Could be months, but they don’t really know.

The state investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act and procurement violations by some Houston ISD trustees could last months, a top Texas Education Agency official said Saturday, potentially leaving the district and its superintendent search in limbo.

At a town hall attended by about 50 people, TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance A.J. Crabill said state officials are still conducting a special accreditation investigation into HISD, with the most severe possible punishment resulting in school board members surrendering their powers to a state-appointed governing team. TEA officials have not provided a timeline for the investigation, which started in January, but Crabill said initial results likely are not imminent.

“My best guess is that the state is still several months away from a preliminary report,” Crabill said, while cautioning that he is not directly involved in the investigation.

Crabill’s comments came during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, held at a downtown Houston church, that offered some clarity to residents concerned about the threat of sanctions looming over Texas’ largest school system. In addition to any fallout from the state investigation, HISD likely would lose local control of its school board if any one of four chronically low-performing campuses fails to meet state academic standards this year.

Crabill offered no hints as to whether HISD’s school board will fall out of power, telling the crowd it’s too early to predict outcomes of the state investigation or academic performance this year. He reassured those in attendance that an appointed board would hold power for only a few years, gradually transitioning back to a locally elected body.

The state-appointed board would be tasked with addressing a narrow set of pressing issues while carrying out the day-to-day functions of a traditional school board, Crabill said. In HISD’s case, the state-appointed board primarily would be tasked with improving student achievement at the lowest-performing campuses, where standardized test scores rank near the bottom in Texas and historical patterns suggest about two-thirds of graduates will not enroll in college.

See here, here, and here for the background. My understanding is that the accountability scores should be known by about August or so, meaning that we’ll know by then if the schools that must meet standards have done so or not. As is usually the case with these stories, I’m lost for much to say beyond I hope everything works out.

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

A state-appointed conservator ordered Houston ISD trustees on Monday to suspend their search for a permanent superintendent, an unprecedented intervention in the state’s largest school district.

In a letter sent to HISD trustees, the conservator, Doris Delaney, said she is exercising her legally-authorized power to “direct an action to be taken” by a school board. HISD trustees were days away from naming a lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position, with a final round of candidate interviews scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Delaney said she is ordering the search suspended “until the agency has completed its special accreditation investigation” into the district. The investigation, which involves allegations of Texas Open Meetings Act violations by five trustees, has been ongoing since January.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not among the five trustees under review, also tweeted Monday that the investigation has expanded to include “malfeasance regarding contracts” with vendors, offering no additional details. Texas Education Agency officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Delaney’s move is a potentially ominous sign for HISD’s school board, which could be replaced by the state later this year due to chronically low performance at a few campuses or potential findings of malfeasance by trustees. If state officials replace HISD trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would have the legal responsibility of choosing the district’s superintendent, with no obligation to keep the school board’s choice.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, I understand where Dr. Delaney is coming from. This investigation is a serious matter, and if it turns out that some number of Trustees were involved in violating the (now less potent) Open Meetings Act, one can make a good case that they have forfeited the right to name a Superintendent. On the other hand, the (resumed) search has been going on for awhile, so maybe she could have said something sooner? I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but perhaps this explains it.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent Houston school officials a letter detailing an expanded role for the conservator, Doris Delaney, according to the news outlet. Her duties now include “attending board meetings and overseeing the district’s governance,” according to the letter Houston Public Media posted Monday.

You can see the letter here. That seems portentious, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. All I know is that I hope this is wrapped up quickly and favorably. I can’t take any more drama. The Press has more.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.

I still have no idea what’s going on at HCDE

Whatever it is, it’s not normal.

After fiery exchanges and confusion dominated a special meeting Monday by the Harris County Department of Education’s board trustees voted to update the composition of an ancillary board charged with issuing bonds and overseeing construction projects for Texas’ last remaining county department of education.

Board members overseeing the department’s Public Facilities Corporation will largely remain the same, with HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and CFO Jesus Amezcula earning enough votes to have their terms renewed, and HCDE’s relatively new Executive Director of Facilities Rich Vela named as a new board member. HCDE Trustee Richard Cantu was also voted onto the ancillary six-member board.

Those actions, however, came after trustees lobbed accusations of backroom deals and carelessness at each other during the contentious hour-long meeting. At one point, Trustee Eric Dick called new Board President Josh Flynn a “coward” and a “chicken” for not including public comment on the special meeting’s agenda and implored county entities to examine actions proposed and taken by HCDE’s board.

“I beg the county attorney to have an investigation – I beg them to. I beg the county commissioners to look into this and to do something about it, I beg the county judge to do something about this,” Dick said. “This is outrageous, this is unacceptable, and we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Dick’s frustrations stem from the short notice given before Monday’s special meeting. It was called by Flynn on Friday, giving other trustees and the public 72 hours of notice, the shortest amount of time legally required to notify others that a meeting will occur under Texas’ Open Meetings Act.

[…]

HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr., who also chairs the corporation’s board, called a corporation board meeting on Feb. 5, giving HCDE trustees 72 hours of notice before the corporation leaders convened on Feb. 8. Flynn said the move caught him flat-footed and did not give the HCDE board enough time to respond. Colbert, however, said the meeting was necessary to approve some construction business and to address the membership issues detailed in Langlois’ report.

“There was no attempt to circumvent the board’s authority or to not inform the board,” Colbert said. “I just wanted to stay in compliance with contracts that were already issued.”

Flynn said he tried to call an emergency meeting last week but was unable to due to how such meetings are defined by state statute. Instead, he called the special meeting for Monday and included proposals to change the composition of the corporation’s board and to fire and replace Board Attorney Langlois with another attorney.

Superintendent Colbert and Trustee Dick questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through and could not wait for the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 27. Others, including trustees Cantu, George Moore and Danny Norris, said they had not yet had enough time to study the PFC or potential candidates to serve on its board. Others, including Superintendent Colbert, questioned why such changes needed to be pushed through so quickly.

See here for the background. Once again I can’t believe I’m about to agree with Eric Dick, but a little scrutiny from the county would not be a bad idea. Really, the problem here is with the two rogue members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. If we can just keep them from burning the place down for the next two years, the 2020 elections will take care of the rest.

How much more danger is HISD in of being taken over?

Hard to say for sure, but they’re not in a good place right now.

The threat of state takeover has loomed over Houston ISD for months, largely due to chronically low-rated schools and mounting frustration with its much-criticized school board.

Now, another factor could give state leaders more reason to pull the trigger: a new investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws by five trustees last year.

It’s far too soon to tell whether state investigators will dig up any dirt on the five board members, but the fallout from the disclosure of the investigation is leading to speculation about what sanctions could befall the state’s largest school district.

The worst-case scenario for those who want HISD to remain under local control: investigators find extensive wrongdoing that provides cover for Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration to wrest jurisdiction over the board.

“I’m inclined to think this gives them the opportunity to really seize the public discourse,” said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of Houstonians for Great Public School, a nonprofit that monitors HISD’s governance practices. “Part of the problem about the governor taking over is that it’s politically unpopular. It’s easier to do that if you remind the public how dysfunctional the board is.”

[…]

A special accreditation investigation allows Texas Education Agency staff members to obtain documents and interview witnesses to determine whether school officials violated laws or threatened a district’s welfare. If investigators find one-time or minor missteps by HISD trustees, TEA officials could mandate relatively light sanctions, such as additional training on open records laws.

However, more egregious or systemic wrongdoing could allow TEA to lower the district’s accreditation, opening the district to a wide array of escalating sanctions. Given that HISD already is monitored by a state-appointed conservator — one of the most severe interventions at the TEA’s disposal — some district onlookers fear a state takeover of the district’s board could be next.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who has called for state and criminal investigations into her five fellow board members, said she believes the inquiry “very well could be the cause for us getting taken over.”

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, to ask for an investigation from an agency I don’t even respect,” said Jones, an ardent critic of the TEA and supporter of Lathan. “That bothers me, but I can’t stay silent and turn a blind eye.”

See here for the background. Let’s see what the investigation turns up first. The five trustees have maintained they did nothing wrong and have pledged to cooperate. If they’re right on both counts, then this ought to blow over and I don’t think HISD will be in any more real danger than before. If they’re wrong, to whatever extent, that’s when things get dicey. I tend to agree with Jasmine Jenkins here: The state would, all things considered and Greg Abbott’s mini-Trump tweets aside, rather not take over HISD. They are not equipped to run a big school district, and there’s no empirical reason to believe they will get any better results by stepping in. But the board is on thin ice, and they don’t have many friends in positions of power. If this investigation gives weight to the critics, that could be enough to overcome the resistance. I sure hope it doesn’t come to that.

HISD back under scrutiny

Let’s hope this turns out to be no big deal.

The Texas Education Agency is investigating possible open meetings violations by some Houston ISD trustees last year when they engaged in private discussions that led to the abrupt ouster of the Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

TEA officials notified the district Tuesday that an investigation would begin following “multiple complaints” made to the agency over the vote to replace Lathan with former district superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, according to a letter sent to Lathan and HISD board President Diana Dávila. The Houston Chronicle reviewed a portion of the letter outlining the allegations.

“Houston ISD Board of Trustees may have violated The Open Meetings Act by deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting regarding the potential removal of the current interim superintendent and the installation of a new interim superintendent,” the notice read.

TEA officials confirmed they opened a special accreditation investigation into HISD, though they declined to specify the nature of the inquiry.

A special accreditation investigation gives TEA officials wide discretion to review potential wrongdoing and issue a range of sanctions. If investigators find repeated or extensive misconduct, the most severe punishment could be a state takeover of the district’s locally elected board. However, state leaders could issue nominal punishment aimed at preventing future missteps by trustees.

[…]

The investigation stems from an October 2018 vote by five trustees — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Elizabeth Santos, Sergio Lira and Anne Sung — to replace Lathan.

The vote came with no advance warning to the public, and the board’s four other members have said they were unaware that colleagues planned to seek Lathan’s ouster.

Saavedra backed out of the job three days after the vote, citing “dysfunction” at the school board level. Trustees then voted to reinstate Lathan.

Saavedra told the Chronicle in October that he spoke independently with the five trustees who voted for his appointment prior to the vote. Some of the five trustees have said they communicated one-on-one, but they did not meet as a group.

Under Texas open meetings law, deliberations between school board members about “public business or public policy” subject to a vote must take place at public meetings. State investigators likely will seek any evidence of communications between trustees that could constitute a so-called “walking quorum,” which refers to a deliberative effort by elected officials to communicate as a group in private.

See here, here, and here for more on the Saavedra saga, which didn’t make much sense then and makes even less now. All I can say is that I hope the TEA finds no evidence of the five Trustees forming a non-sanctioned quorum, which would be dumb at the least and a violation of trust at the worst. The TEA already has the power to take over HISD if they feel the need. I sure hope we haven’t given them another reason to consider it.

Trustees apologize for Saavedra/Lathan mess

It’s a start.

Houston ISD trustees on Monday offered a public apology to students, parents and teachers for their behavior the past 10 months, particularly the chaotic meeting last week when a faction of the board surprised their colleagues and the audience by replacing the interim superintendent.

Trustees said they hoped the apology and pledge to work better with each other is the first step toward quelling infighting on the board, restoring the public’s trust and showing the Texas Education Agency that HISD is capable of governing itself.

“Our actions have not modeled the behavior we desire to instill in our children that we serve,” said Trustee Diana Dávila at a lectern surrounded by her eight colleagues. “We sincerely apologize to all of you.”

[…]

Trustee Jolanda Jones said the board at a special meeting Thursday morning would set an end date for its search for a permanent superintendent, consider hiring an executive coach for the school board and Lathan, and request a new governance counselor from the Texas Education Agency, which has been monitoring the board for months.

The trustees then left the boardroom, refusing to answer questions about what convinced trustees to change course, whether they had broken the law in secretly recruiting Saavedra and why the public should trust this latest pledge to do better.

[…]

Despite her contrition, questions remain about whether Dávila and four colleagues violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by approaching Saavedra about taking over as superintendent before informing the rest of the board or the public.

Saavedra, who served as HISD’s superintendent from 2005 to 2009, told the Chronicle on Sunday that he spoke separately with five trustees — including the four Latino members — in the days before the vote to appoint him.

Of the five trustees who voted for his appointment, Davila, Sergio Lira and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said they met with Saavedra beforehand. The other two “yes” votes, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joe Larsen, a Houston First Amendment lawyer and expert on Texas’ open meetings and public information laws, said Saavedra’s acknowledgment that he spoke with a majority of trustees privately is evidence that they may have broken the law.

“It certainly would appear to indicate there’s some coordination between those five individuals toward a specific goal, constituting a majority,” Larsen said. “That’s precisely the sort of thing that should have been deliberated in public.”

The district attorney’s office would need to investigate any possible violation of the Open Meetings Act, Larsen said, which is a misdemeanor. A spokesman for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said the office does not comment on investigations that may or may not exist.

See here and here for the background. It’s good to hear the Board speak in this fashion, and to apparently recognize the lack of trust they have earned with the public, but suffice it to say that their actions will speak far louder than any words of contrition. I say this as someone who knows nearly all of them – I’ve never met Diana Davila, and I have only spoken to Sergio Lira over the phone – and who likes and respects them. For a broad range of reasons, I really really want them to work together to solve problems and make HISD the best it can be. This is a start, but there’s a very long way to go, and that’s before we consider the possibility that the Open Meetings Act was violated. One step at a time. The Press has more.

Uptown lawsuit filed

I suppose we should have expected something like this.

The city’s Uptown Development Authority and the economic development zone that feeds it were created in violation of the Texas Constitution, two critics allege in a lawsuit that seeks to void all resulting actions and block Uptown from collecting or spending another dime.

The Galleria-area agency’s controversial, $200 million effort to widen Post Oak Boulevard and add dedicated bus lanes down the middle is a key focus of the lawsuit. It was filed Wednesday on behalf of restaurateur Russell Masraff and condominium resident Jim Scarborough, who was also was a plaintiff in another, since-dismissed lawsuit seeking to block the bus plan.

The suit argues that Uptown officials repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in pricing and purchasing land to widen Post Oak – including tracts in which some Uptown board members had a financial interest – and that the agency’s subsequent decisions should be voided or reversed, to the extent possible.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Joe Larsen, said he views the filing as having broader significance beyond the bus plan.

“We’re asking the court to order Uptown to make no further payments because all the money involved has been collected through an unconstitutional tax regime,” Larsen said. “The bottom line is the Constitution requires equal taxation.”

He added that the only reason tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, “are not unconstitutional is that there’s a different provision in the Constitution that allows them.”

“In order to meet that other provision in the Constitution that allows TIRZs to be constitutional, they have to be in an area that’s ‘blighted, undeveloped or underdeveloped,’ Larsen asserted. “That’s it.”

This is not the first lawsuit related to this project; that one was subsequently dismissed, though without a comment on its merits. In this case, the plaintiffs asked the judge for an injunction blocking the Uptown Development Authority from spending money or issuing bonds while the litigation was in progress, but that request was denied. I feel like it’s also in the Constitution that we cannot have a non-freeway expansion transportation project in this town without at least one lawsuit. I’m not qualified to assess the legal argument being made here, so instead let me bring you a video of “Uptown Funk”, since that song has been lodged in my brain since this story first broke.

With all due respect to “Uptown Girl”, I say this song should be played at the beginning of all court hearings in this case. Who’s with me on this? Swamplot has more.

Criminal complaint filed over Uptown land acquisition

All righty then.

A consultant who represents property owners in the Galleria area has filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, alleging the Uptown Development Authority and related entities broke state open meetings and disclosure laws in relation to acquiring property for a dedicated bus lane project.

The complaint, filed last week with District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office, concerns meetings held by Uptown officials to discuss right-of-way purchases along Post Oak Boulevard to make the bus project feasible.

The transit project, which also involves Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation, would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center with the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610, stopping at dedicated platforms along Post Oak.

Wayne Dolcefino, president of Dolcefino Consulting, said Uptown did not create any records of the so-called Right-of-Way Committee meetings, including dates, agendas or minutes.

“We believe that’s a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and have now formally asked the district attorney to investigate,” according to a statement released this week by Dolcefino’s consulting firm. His complaint also raises questions about potential conflicts of interest among board members who own or are affiliated with companies that own real estate on Post Oak.

Uptown official John Breeding said his organization has not broken any rules. He said the meetings did not include a quorum and no action was taken.

“Our attorneys … they tell us such committee meetings don’t have to be posted,” said Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District and administrator of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Development Authority.

Long story short, this is just another skirmish in the fight between the Uptown Management District and its plans to remake Post Oak Blvd and build a BRT line, and some Uptown business interests that hate the idea and have been fighting it like a pack of crazed weasels. It’s all going to culminate in a lawsuit, unless one of the shots that the opponents have been firing manages to take the project down before a suit gets filed. I rather doubt this complaint will lead to anything, but hey, you never know.

Hempstead landfill trial update

It’s complicated.

StopHwy6Landfill

For many in the courtroom, a judge’s promise Friday that the Waller County landfill trial would conclude “before Santa Claus comes” was welcome news. Earlier in the week, they had lamented the possibility that the trial – one over an issue that has divided the rural county for the past two years – would pause and not conclude until February, due to a crowded court calendar.

Yet both the landfill developer’s attorney and members of incoming county commissioners agree that whatever the verdict, the controversy over the proposed 250-acre waste site will be far from over.

“Whatever happens,” Pintail Landfill attorney Brent Ryan said Friday, “we’re going to move forward with the project.”

County Judge-elect Trey Duhon, a landfill opponent, agreed.

“The end of this trial is not the end of the story,” Duhon said.

[…]

Whatever the jury decides – the trial is now expected to continue through Tuesday, pause, and then resume again on Dec. 16 – it is unlikely that Waller County will be left with definitive answers.

The reasons are twofold.

Ryan, Pintail’s attorney, said that the company will proceed with the project regardless of whether the jury invalidates Waller County’s 2013 landfill ordinance and host agreement. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, not the county, has the final say over the landfill, and the commission is still reviewing Pintail’s permit application. That proposal is expected to be reviewed in a contested case hearing this summer, commission spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.

If the state commission were to approve the project and Waller County’s ordinance were invalidated, Ryan said Pintail would be free to develop the project – it just wouldn’t have to provide Hempstead or the county with benefits that had been agreed to.

See here for the background. Originally, the trial was expected to conclude in February due to a crammed court calendar, so I suppose a December conclusion counts as good news. The thought that this won’t settle the matter of whether the landfill can be built or not, and that the decision rests with the TCEQ, is rather unsettling. I’m not exactly sure how that is, but whatever. The point is, one way or the other this fight will go on.

Fifth Circuit upholds Texas Open Meetings Act

Good.

A Fifth Circuit federal appeals panel on Tuesday upheld the criminal penalty provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act against a challenge by a cadre of city officials who argued it chills free speech.

Texas government officials sued the state, arguing the open meetings act restricts their First Amendment rights.

The law requires that most state and local government meetings be open to the public, with a few notable exceptions, including the state legislature, governors and mayors and other executive-level policymakers. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 and up to six months in jail.

The three-judge panel on Tuesday unanimously affirmed a district court decision that found the law’s criminal penalties do not curtail free speech, and instead are designed to compel its disclosure.

[…]

Attorneys for the city officials argued the law discourages political speech and is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.

The panel found that the city officials only offered one example of why they would have to discuss public business privately: When the city of Hurst was considering the prohibition of a then-legal substance and did not want to disclose where it was being sold. The attorneys for the city officials argued that having that discussion privately would not lead to corruption, so it should be considered outside of the law’s sweep.

But the panel wrote that “notion fails, because it ignores (the law’s) other goals apart from reducing corruption.”

“Having that discussion privately would decrease government transparency, and the state has determined that the benefits of making these discussions public outweigh any harm done by the disclosure of information,” the judges wrote.

Here’s the opinion. Nice to know that the Fifth Circuit is still capable of making a decent ruling. The plaintiffs say they will appeal to the full Fifth Circuit court, and if necessary to SCOTUS, and who knows what they’ll make of it. But until then, good sense has prevailed. Grits and the Trib have more.

The door will stay open

Good decision.

A proposal to give Houston City Council the ability to meet behind closed doors is dead.

What a mayor’s spokeswoman called a “lack of consensus” was manifest in a committee meeting last week during which several council members criticized the idea as bad policy and bad timing.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker’s agenda for Wednesday’s council meeting seeks approval to put the two charter housekeeping amendments and the five bond measures on the November ballot. The closed-session proposal was not on the agenda.

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans wrote in an email that Parker had no pre-conceived opinion on closed sessions.

“She is able to see all of the arguments both for and against. Given the lack of consensus on Council, she decided not to move forward,” Evans wrote.

That’s clearly the right call. If there really is a need for this – if there’s an example or two of something that was discussed in an open Council session that would have been better off being discussed behind closed doors – then bring it up and let’s debate the merits with full information, and maybe consider a referendum in the future. Otherwise, let’s join hands and get the bonds and cleanup amendments passed. Stace, who has the bond items detailed, has more.

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.

HISD Board renews Grier’s contract

It was not unanimous.

Terry Grier

The Houston school board on Thursday extended Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract through June 2014 in a split vote that signaled the controversial chief has bridges to build with the newer trustees.

The five trustees who were on the board that hired Grier in 2009 supported the extension, expressing their confidence in his leadership and the gains in student achievement. Three trustees elected after Grier’s appointment abstained from the vote, while another newer trustee opposed the deal.

Trustee Harvin Moore, who made the motion for the two-year extension, acknowledged that Grier and the board need to improve, particularly in listening and in rolling out changes.

“He did well on his performance review, but he didn’t get perfect marks,” Moore said.

Trustee Anna Eastman, the lone trustee to vote against the extension, said she knows Grier is passionate, but she is concerned about the mood in the Houston Independent School District.

“I fear the culture of this organization is struggling,” she said. “And I worry that these gains will (not) be sustainable.”

Eastman later added, “I will be available for a big fat ‘I told you so’ if it’s warranted.”

Trustees Mike Lunceford, Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche abstained from the vote.

As Campos and Stace have observed, this isn’t exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence in Grier. A handful of votes go the other way in the Rodriguez-Fonseca election, who knows what might have happened. For what it’s worth, I think Grier has done enough to warrant an extension, but he’s also done enough to have been denied that extension. I hope he puts some thought – and action – into the reasons for that.

On a side note, prior to the Board meeting Texas Watchdog ran a report saying that the vote on Grier’s contract was illegal, according to a lawyer specializing in open government. They subsequently took that down with the explanation that said attorney had revised his opinion. The Examiner explains:

The attorney quoted in a Texas Watchdog article as saying a probable vote by HISD trustees to extend Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract would be “illegal,” said he was not accurately informed about the agenda item and that such a vote “would withstand a legal challenge.”

“This is not a question of legality and criminal law,” Joel White, an expert in law pertaining to open meetings and records, told the Examiner. “This is a question about whether an item was adequately posted.”

The reporter for Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit investigative news agency whose HISD coverage is utilized by the Examiners, did not provide him with a written copy of the HISD board agenda and left out critical wording when explaining it to him verbally, White said.

The attorney called HISD’s attorney, David Thompson, “a good lawyer, and they’re going to have to trust what he tells them.”

Although White said he found the wording “slightly problematic,” he said he had conversed with Thompson Thursday and “saw and heard nothing that would rise to the level of a legal challenge.” State open meetings laws require that agendas be posted 72 hours in advance of a public meeting and outline circumstances for employee matters to be discussed in closed executive session.

Glad we got that cleared up. I can only imagine what kind of fuss there would be now if that allegation were being pressed. Hair Balls has more.

Texting while lawmaking

This is a fascinating issue.

A bill by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi , would make an addition to the Texas Open Meetings Act. And it would apply to any public meeting, whether it’s a House committee or a small-town city council meeting.

The measure, House Bill 2977, says an official would be committing an offense if he or she transmits an electronic message — including an email, text message, instant message or Internet posting — during a public meeting.

No penalty has been included in the bill. But Hunter said he’s still considering how to deal with violators.

Hunter, who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, said he had a few reasons for filing the bill.

“For one, it’s discourteous if you’re conducting business on a cellular phone or BlackBerry when somebody’s coming in to testify. You need to be focused on those people,” Hunter said.

But perhaps more to the point, Hunter is seeking to take the state’s open records and open meetings laws into the digital age.

The state has to modernize the law, Hunter said.

“I also don’t think you should be communicating in a public setting with private interests, telling you how to vote, telling you how to think, telling you how to speak without that being open access to the public,” he said. He added that state legislators would still be allowed to text from the House and Senate chambers.

But rudeness and modernization are not the only reasons for filing the measure. There is a legal basis for his bill, too, Hunter said: If lawmakers don’t address the issue, it could end up the subject of a court challenge.

Here’s HB2977. The subject came up last year in a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. I think Rep. Hunter is correct that if the Lege doesn’t take action to clarify existing laws relating to open meetings, the courts eventually will, and I think there’s a lot of merit to what he’s saying. I’m not sure about drawing a line between public meetings and just being in the House or Senate chambers, since surely those same private interests are there as well, but the subject is worth debating. I personally think that applying the same guidelines for email to other forms of messaging on mobile devices would go a long way towards addressing these issues, though that brings up the matter of retention intervals. Like I said, there’s a lot to discuss here, and whatever gets passed initially will surely need to be revisited in the future, probably multiple times. It’s going to take awhile to figure this all out and come up with something workable.

New frontiers in open meeting laws

There’s an awful lot here to think about.

The Texas Legislature may become the first in the nation to tackle whether tweeting and texting is being used to circumvent open meetings laws and whether the private devices of public officials can be subject to open records searches.

“They are new tools to communicate with constituents … and in some ways they are a better way to engage the public in the public policy process,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

But he told the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the tools of the Internet and smart phones can lead to quorum and open meetings violations.

“Everybody here today has been texting and answering e-mails,” Elkins said. “It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a quorum of any body has texted each other to say ‘Yes, I’m voting and why.’ ”

[…]

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he would be concerned that people may think he was violating the law by texting during a meeting when, in fact, he may be dealing with a family emergency, a message from a constituent or even taking a moment to read the Gospel of the Day.

“Texting has become an excellent way to get staff to assist you during committee meetings,” Lucio said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he is concerned about subjecting private computers and private cell phones to public information requests. He said he also is worried that public officials may end up having to carry three cell phones to cover public use, campaign use and private use.

“Everybody ought to have some expectation of privacy, even if they are a public official,” Duncan said.

No question there’s a can of worms here, but I am sympathetic to what the Senators have to say. Among other things, many public officials are parents, and I’d bet they get lots of text messages from or about their kids, just like millions of other parents do. Basically, this is in some sense no different than email, and we had this conversation about email some years ago. Everyone more or less understands the rules with email – what you can and can’t send from your official account, for example – and it shouldn’t to too hard to translate those rules for other forms of communication. Just codifying what’s allowed and what’s not will do a lot to discourage official business from taking place out of sight.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be loopholes to exploit. That happens now with email. We’ve seen Governor Perry and various members of the Bush administration use personal email accounts for a lot of stuff that may have been official or campaign communications because they can avoid this kind of scrutiny by doing so. There isn’t always a sufficiently clear distinction between different kinds of communications, so any number of things can fall between the cracks by accident or design. With new technologies constantly emerging, those who want to operate in secret will always have an advantage, as the law will never be able to keep up. Confusion is an issue, too, as illustrated by this paragraph:

Not long after a Florida state commission recommended all agencies adopt policies on electronic messaging last year, the state’s utility regulation agency was caught in a scandal when staff gave out private Blackberry messaging accounts to utility lobbyists, who treated them to a Kentucky Derby trip. Though no texts were preserved, it gave the appearance of trying to circumvent the state’s open meetings law.

I’m not what they mean by “BlackBerry messaging accounts”, but as far as I know, one normally sends text messages to a phone number. You can use BlackBerrys for instant messaging as well, however, and I suspect this may have been referring to IM accounts, which can be on various services like AIM or Yahoo or Microsoft OCS if you are on a BlackBerry Enterprise Server that is configured to work with it. Personal IM usage would not be recorded on a BES, if that’s what these guys were doing. Getting a real handle on this will be a challenge, but using existing guidelines for email usage will be our best bet for where to start.

One last thing: The opening sentence of this story referred to “tweeting and texting”, but that was the only mention of anything related to Twitter. Say what you want about Twitter, it’s not normally used for clandestine communication. Yes, you can protect your tweets, and yes you can send text-like direct messages, but for the most part Twitter is the opposite of what needs to be dealt with here.

Like I said, it’s a complex issue. Vince makes a compelling case that what’s at issue is open records, not open meetings. I encourage you to read what he has to say on the subject.

Defense attorneys criticize Forensic Science Commission

Good for them.

Texas defense lawyers took aim at the state’s Forensic Science Commission Monday, charging that the group — now probing the possibly botched arson investigations that sent an East Texas man to his execution — is in danger of being “permanently tainted and derailed by politics.”

In a statement issued by Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association president Stanley Schneider, the lawyers targeted commission Chairman John Bradley, saying he has “overstepped his authority, ignored the will of the Legislature and is trying to hide the commission’s work from public scrutiny.”

[…]

Schneider, a Houston lawyer, said a Bradley-devised system of subcommittees designed to collect investigation evidence, accept citizen complaints and handle other matters “very likely” violates the Texas Open Meetings Act.

In response to my emailed request, Keith Hampton of the TCDLA sent me a copy of the their statement, which I have reproduced beneath the fold. Like Grits, I hope the TCDLA pursues the open meetings angle, which based on the story and Grits’ analysis seems likely to be a winning argument if a lawsuit were to be filed. Someone needs to hold John Bradley accountable for his actions.

(more…)

Bradley and the Texas Open Meetings Act

Rick Casey finds another way in which John Bradley, the Chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, is a failure.

Friday started badly for John Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney selected last fall by Gov. Rick Perry to ride herd over the troublesome scientists on the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

His first official act of the morning was to violate the state’s open meetings law.

Then his day got worse.

[…]

Bradley evicted an Austin-based documentary crew before the meeting started. One of its members called the attorney general’s office in Austin, which sent a message to Barbara Dean, the assistant district attorney who has attended all of the commission’s meetings, providing legal guidance since its inception.

An hour and a half into the meeting, Dean, seated behind Bradley, tapped him on the shoulder and quietly spoke into his ear. He announced a 10-minute break, and when the meeting resumed the film crew was in the room.

When I asked Bradley about the matter, he curtly told me to talk to the film crew. I said I had and he replied with annoyance: “Then you know.”

His defensiveness was understandable. Enforcement of the Open Meetings Act is the responsibility of local district attorneys such as himself.

Wayne Slater noted this as it was happening as well. Heck of a job, Johnny. Scott Cobb and the Statesman’s editorial board have more, and on a tangential note, State Rep. Pete Gallego is peeved with Bradley for preventing arson expert Craig Beyler from testifying before a recent legislative hearing that Gallego chaired.

It must be noted, however, that Bradley’s political mission, to protect Rick Perry, has been a success. Not only is the next meeting scheduled for after the primary runoff date, as Dave Mann notes the whole Willingham issue was never mentioned in either of the GOP gubernatorial debates. At this point you have to wonder if Rick Perry will pay any price for this. More from Casey here.

The secret Superintendent search continues

HISD continues its stealthy ways in seeking a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Abe Saavedra.

The Houston school board, trying to protect the candidates’ identities, will interview the job seekers behind closed doors at its headhunting firm’s downtown office.

The board is scheduled to call the meeting to order at 9 a.m. [today] in a conference room at Heidrick & Struggles, located on the 68th floor of the Chase Tower.

The public part of the meeting is expected to last a few minutes before trustees go into closed session to question the job candidates.

I still think this is ridiculous. What are they going to do, bring the candidates in with bags over their heads? What’s their plan in the event one or more names do get leaked? Just be open about it and you don’t have to worry about these things.

The Texas Open Meetings Act appears to allow the school board to meet anywhere that is “accessible to the public,” said Matthew Festa, an assistant professor at South Texas College of Law.

“I would say reasonably any place in Houston is accessible. Nothing says it has to be in the official chambers,” Festa said.

Seems to me to be a glaring weakness in the law as written. I hope someone remembers this in 2011.

Csorba said the public can attend the brief open session before the interviews, though he’s not expecting a crowd.

It would be awfully funny if he were to be proven wrong about that. Which leads to another question: What happens if someone shows up with a camera and an Internet connection? Would they throw him out? Would that be allowed under the Open Meetings Act given that this is taking place on private property? This very likely won’t happen, but if it does, we’ll all see the lawsuit coming a mile away.