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O.W.L.S, a Valley-based advocacy group that successfully promoted rights of citizens to address local governments, to be honored by Valley state legislative delegation in Edinburg on Monday 1

Featured, from left: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Ronnie Larralde, Executive Director, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen; Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and Rebecca Arizmendi, President/CEO, Pharr Greater Chamber of Commerce. This image was taken on Wednesday, November 6, 2019, at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance.

COURTESY PHOTOGRAPH

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O.W.L.S., a Valley-based advocacy group that successfully promoted rights of citizens to address local governments, to be honored by Valley state legislative delegation in Edinburg on Monday 

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

The Objective Watchers of the Legal System, more well-known by their acronym O.W.L.S., will be honored by Rio Grande Valley state legislators on Monday, January 27, 2020, for their successful efforts to promote good government and challenge the powers-that-be in elected and appointed office.

(An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word, such as Objective Watchers of the Legal System – O.W.L.S.)

In addition, during the presentation and news conference, which will take place from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance, the organization and legislators will promote House Bill 2840, which supporters of the new law say is a major step forward for Texans to speak on agenda items during public meetings of most governmental bodies.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, were the key state legislators who passed the House Bill 2840, which was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott and went into effect on Sunday, September 1, 2019.

The Senate Research Organization, which is the research arm of the Texas Senate, provided the following background on the need for House Bill 2840:

“It has been suggested that it is the practice of the governing bodies of certain political subdivisions to provide for public input and comment only at the conclusion of a governing body meeting, making it difficult for members of the public to properly weigh in on decisions because they must wait for a meeting to end to give an opinion on any subject matter addressed at the meeting. The purpose of this bill is to provide the public with increased access to the decision-making process by providing for public comment before or during consideration of each item on a meeting agenda.” 

The O.W.L.S. brought those goals to Canales a few months before the 86th Texas Legislature began its 140-day regular session on Tuesday, January 8, 2019, and Canales agreed to have their concerns drafted into state legislation.

In part because of the role played on House Bill 2840 – along with the group’s long history in the legal system and governmental affairs in Hidalgo County – state lawmakers also unanimously approved a legislative resolution commending the O.W.L.S. for their proven successes in promoting good government at all levels.

“We are very happy to present the Objective Watchers of the Legal System (O.W.L.S.) signed copies of House Bill 2840 and House Concurrent Resolution 67, a resolution passed in the recent legislative session (86th Texas Legislature, Spring 2019) which honors the O.W.L.S.,” said Canales, who was the author of both measures.

The author is a legislator who filed the bill and guided it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). The Senate allows multiple primary authors for each bill or resolution. The House of Representatives allows only one primary author, the House member whose signature appears on the original measure and on the copies filed with the chief clerk. Both chambers also have coauthors, and the House of Representatives has joint authors.

“House Bill 2840 is an important piece of legislation that enshrines the right of the Texans to participate in the public meetings of their local governmental entities,” the House District 40 state representative said. “This idea behind the legislation was brought to our office by the O.W.L.S., and we wanted to take the opportunity to thank their organization for their work on this legislation and their efforts to promote good government.”

With Canales serving as the primary author, Guerra, Guillén, and Raymond also were authors of House Bill 2840, while Hughes was the sponsor, and Hinojosa was the co-sponsor of the legislation. 

All Rio Grande Valley state lawmakers voted for House Bill 2840.

The sponsor is a legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.

The co-sponsor is a legislator who joins with the primary sponsor to guide a bill or resolution through the legislative process in the opposite chamber. A cosponsor must be a member of the opposite chamber from the one in which the measure was filed.

House Concurrent Resolution 67, authored by Canales and sponsored by Hinojosa, praised the O.W.L.S., among other achievements since it was first formed in the 1970s, for “calling public attention to concerns about unfairness by elected and appointed government officials” and for promoting “transparency and (serving) as staunch advocates for the Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

A concurrent resolution is a type of legislative measure that requires adoption by both chambers of the Legislature and generally requires action by the governor. A concurrent resolution is used to convey the sentiment of the Legislature and may offer a commendation, a memorial, a statement of congratulations, a welcome, or a request for action by another governmental entity. Concurrent resolutions are also used to memorialize (petition) the U.S. Congress, express the views of the legislature, designate official state symbols, and adopt official place or date designations. Additionally, concurrent resolutions are used for administrative matters that require the approval of both chambers, such as providing for adjournment or a joint session, but these types of concurrent resolutions do not require action by the governor.

House Bill 2840, however, did require the governor’s approval, which Abbott gave.

House Bill 2840 requires certain governmental bodies to allow any member of the public who wished to address the body regarding an item on the agenda for an open meeting to do so at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of that item, according to the bill analysis by the House Research Organization. 

The House Research Organization is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives.

Leaders with the O.W.L.S. want to continue drawing attention to House Bill 2840 for the benefit of all the public.

“We are inviting area residents, the South Texas news media, elected and appointed local government leaders to this major event – which is free and open to the public – to continue informing and educating The People about House Bill 2840, which many consider one of the most important advances for freedom of speech in Texas history,” according to the press advisory issued by the O.W.L.S. “This new state law was requested by and lobbied for last spring before the Texas Legislature by the O.W.L.S. With the help of many other champions for open government, Gov. Abbott approved it.”

The O.W.L.S.’ announcement provided a brief description on “how House Bill 2840 increased the People’s Right to Speak Truth to Power: Most local government bodies must allow any person to speak on an item on the board’s open meeting agenda before or during the body’s consideration of the item, and most local government bodies shall not prohibit lawful criticism of the body during those meetings.”

The House Research Organization’s detailed bill analysis of House Bill 2840 follows:

House Bill 2840 would require certain governmental bodies to allow any member of the public who wished to address the body regarding an item on the agenda for an open meeting to do so at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of that item.

The law created by House Bill 2840 applies to:

• A county commissioners court;
• A municipal governing body;
• A deliberative body with a rulemaking or quasi-judicial power and that was classified as a department, agency, or political subdivision of a county or municipality;
• A school district board of trustees;
• A county board of school trustees;
• A county board of education;
• The governing board of a special district created by law;
• A local workforce development board;
• A nonprofit corporation eligible to receive funds under the federal community services block grant program and authorized by the state to serve a geographic area of the state;
• A nonprofit corporation that provided water supply, wastewater service, or both, and was exempt from ad valorem taxation; and
• A joint board created to exercise the constituent powers of each public agency with respect to an airport, air navigation facility, or airport hazard area.

House Bill 2840 allows a governmental body to which it applied to adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address that body, including those that limited the total amount of time that a member of the public could address the body on a given item. 

If a governmental body does not use simultaneous translation equipment, a member of the public who addressed the body through a translator would have to be given at least twice the amount of time as a member of the public who did not require the assistance of a translator.

According to the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, two major state laws in Texas help promote and protect the people’s right to know about the activities of their governments and its elected and appointed leaders.

Texas Public Information Act

Covered Entities

The Texas Public Information Act applies to all governmental bodies, including all boards, commissions, and committees created by the executive or legislative branch. It also may apply to a body that is supported by public funds or that spends public funds. Private organizations that hold records for governmental bodies also are covered. However, private individuals and businesses are not covered even though they supply goods or services through a government contract.

Types of Information

Public information refers to information collected, assembled, produced or maintained in the course of transacting public business. It may be on paper or film or in electronic communications such as emails, Internet postings, text messages or instant messages.

Exceptions

Some information is not open to the public. These types of information are listed as exceptions in the Texas Public Information Act. They include some information in personnel records, pending litigation, competitive bids, trade secrets, real estate deals and certain legal matters involving attorney-client privilege. Attorneys’ fees paid by a governmental body are generally public.

Law Enforcement

Generally, the front page of a police report is public. Records that would hinder the investigation or prosecution of a crime if they are released are exempt from disclosure.

The Judiciary

Information collected and maintained by the judiciary is not covered by the Texas Public Information Act. That information is governed by public access rules set by the Texas Supreme Court and other applicable rules and laws.

Making a Request

Filing a request under the Texas Public Information Act is as simple as asking the government agency in writing for the desired information. The request can be made through a letter or via email or fax. It does not need to contain any particular language, but it’s important to be clear. Try to be specific. This will help produce the information that is sought and can eliminate the need later for narrowing down a request that is too broad. The governmental body is not allowed to ask why the information is being requested.

Charges

A governmental body or agency can charge for copies of the information, but the fee must be reasonable and cannot be used to discourage someone from asking for information. The requester is entitled to an itemized bill if the charge is more than $40. A governmental entity can also waive copying charges. For more information, see the Texas Cost Rules tab in the Resources section of the website for the Freedom of Information Foundation (http://foift.org). To avoid charges, the requester can ask to view the records in person on the premises of the governmental body.

Withholding Information

Public information is supposed to be released “promptly.” There is a misconception that a governmental body or agency has 10 days to release information. The 10-day mark is the deadline for a governmental body if it contends the information is not public, to ask for an attorney general’s decision allowing it to withhold the records. (Texas’ open records law is stronger than those in many other states in that if a governmental entity wants to withhold information, it has to ask the attorney general for permission to do so.) After a ruling is sought, the attorney general then decides within 45 days. The person making the original request can also offer written comments to the attorney general. If a governmental body fails to seek an attorney general decision in time, the information is presumed to be public.

Appealing an Open Records Decision

When the attorney general’s office agrees with a governmental body that information can be withheld from the public, the person making the original request has the option of filing a lawsuit in state district court to attempt to have the information released.

Texas Open Meetings Act

The Texas Open Meetings Act is detailed in Chapter 551 of the Government Code. It states that governmental bodies must hold open meetings unless there is an authorized reason for a closed session, also known as an executive session.

Key provisions of the act are as follow:

Covered Entities

Governing boards, commissions, agencies and other bodies created within the executive and legislative branches of government are subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act. Commissioners courts, city councils, school boards and certain nonprofit corporations providing public services or spending taxpayer money are among the entities covered. Certain property owners’ associations also are subject to the law.

Quorum

A quorum refers to a majority of members of a governing body unless a quorum is defined differently by applicable law or rule or charter of the body. A quorum must be present for the body to take action.

Posting of Notice

The governmental body must give the public notice of the date, time, place, and subject of an upcoming meeting. The notice must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times at least 72 hours before the meeting. In case of an emergency or “urgent public necessity,” a meeting notice or addition to a meeting agenda may be posted at least two hours prior to the meeting. The governmental body must clearly identify the emergency.

Other Exceptions to Posting Law

Boards or commissions with statewide jurisdiction must have their meeting notice posted on the Internet by the secretary of state at least seven days before a meeting. Committees of the Texas Legislature are not subject to the meeting notice rules above. Their rules are set by the Texas House and Senate.

Closed Sessions

Closed, or executive, sessions may be held by a governmental body in certain situations. Executive sessions are permitted when a body is meeting with its attorney on litigation or a settlement offer; deliberating personnel matters; deliberating the purchase or lease of property; discussing certain financial contract negotiations, or discussing deployment of security devices. Several other exceptions to open meetings are also contained in the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Deliberations Between Meetings

Under a new provision of the act that took effect Sept. 1, 2013, members of a governing body are allowed to communicate with one another about public business between meetings if they do so in writing and on a publicly accessible online message board. The message board must be prominently displayed and easy for the public to find on the government entity’s website. Officials may not take action on the message board. That must wait for a posted meeting.

Video Conferencing

The Texas Open Meetings Act now allows for members of a governmental body to attend a public meeting via a video conference call. The head of the board or commission must be physically present in the designated meeting place and the public must be given access to that meeting space. The public must be able to witness the comments and actions of those officials attending the meeting remotely via audio and video equipment and be able to participate via videoconferencing just as they would at a traditional public meeting.

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For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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