The Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA), Government Code Chapter 551, effectively restricts members of a governmental body from discussing public business or public policy within their jurisdiction outside of an open meeting (except for expressly authorized executive sessions).
FAILURE OF ELECTED OFFICIALS TO COMPLY WITH THE OPEN MEETING ACT CAN RESULT IN CRIMINAL PROSECUTION.
Under Texas law, an open meeting is one that meets all of the following criteria:
- scheduled to occur at a predefined location and time;
- has a pre-published and set agenda (discussion during meeting are limited to posted agenda items);
- is open to public attendance and observation;
- for which advanced notice has given to the public;
- at which a simple majority of the members of the governmental body are present.
Anything else could be considered a closed meeting.
TOMA specifically prohibits officials of these governing bodies from “knowingly participating in a closed meeting, to organize a closed meeting, or to close a meeting to the public.” This restriction applies to all types of meetings including information-gathering and fact-finding sessions called by the governmental body.
A key parameter of a meeting for TOMA is the concept of quorum, or a simple majority of members of the governing body. A a discussion involving a minority of governing body members is not considered a violation of TOMA. However, this discussion is not limited to co-presence in place or time by the individuals involved. A discussion involving a minority of members that is subsequently repeated with a different minority group of members will violate TOMA, if the total individuals involved in the discussion represent a majority of members. This is referred to as a “walking quorum”. Thus something as simple a phone call made by one member of a five member to two other board members at different times to discuss the same matters would violate TOMA. This has traditionally included e-mail messages.
The above is provided only as a summary of the Texas Open Meeting Act, and is not intended to provide legal guidance or advice in regards to behaviors associated with compliance. Additional information can be found at the Texas Office of the Attorney General.