In previous posts, we focused on requirements of the Texas Open Meeting Act (OMA), and the attention to detail required to ensure that processes and procedures are in place to ensure that government activities are conducted legally and transparently. In this post, we will offer a view of the consequences that public officials could face if someone claims violation of the law.
It does not take much to get a legal action started under the OMA. Any interested person, whether he or she is a private citizen or a member of the news media, can approach the court, usually at the district level, seeking intervention.
The individual doesn’t need to be a taxpayer, just a member of the public. His or her request might ask that a public official or governing body take specific action required by the law. Alternatively, the request might be injunctive, asking that the official or body stop certain actions.
The potential cost of a valid claim
Beyond those types of orders, Texas courts are allowed to grant accompanying requests for declaratory judgment. That means that a court of record and jurisdiction can demand or restrict actions on the basis of a complaint, but also issue a binding decision in the case.
Provisions of such a judgment could include an award to whichever party prevails to cover attorney and litigation fees incurred. Depending on circumstances, additional damages have been awarded in some cases.
Another provision of the law states that an action by a governmental body violating the OMA can be declared void by the court. A great deal of discretion in this regard rests with the court.
In the criminal context, certain OMA violations can result in misdemeanor charges. These include:
- If an official participates in a closed session knowing there is no agenda of topics or record taken of the meeting.
- If an individual knowingly and without authority makes public the results of a legally held closed meeting.
Conviction of either offense could result in a fine, time in county jail, or both.
Considering these consequences and the taint that law violations can leave on individuals, institutions and the community, adopting practices that prevent violations from happening makes sense.