The actions of city councils affect the lives of thousands – sometimes millions – of people. The Texas Open Meetings Act ensures that members of the public have access to municipal meetings. This provides transparency that is critical for local democracies. However, the Texas Open Meetings Act, or TOMA, also has a few exceptions that cities and other entities should understand.
The exceptions to the rule
The principle of TOMA is that when a quorum of public representatives gathers to talk about public policy or other public issues, it is the right of the public to have notification of and access to the meetings. This allows individuals to voice their opinions to city officials. Generally, all meetings must be open to the public. There are exceptions, though, where TOMA does not apply. These include:
- Closed sessions. Close sessions can only encompass certain issues, such as:
- The purchase or lease of real estate property.
- Consulting legal counsel
- Issues relating to personnel
- Economic development
- Certain homeland security issues
- Certain cybersecurity issues
- Social gatherings such as conventions, conferences, workshops and ceremonies, as long as any discussion of public business is incidental to the gathering.
- Certain types of online message boards that public officials can use to talk about public business.
Be aware that if a council wants to hold a close session, it must first hold an open session. At this open session, it should specify the issues that require a closed session and cite the applicable exceptions section of TOMA. Close sessions cannot include final votes or actions – these must be held in open meetings.
Penalties to violations still apply
All city officials need to educate themselves on when exceptions to TOMA apply. Sometimes, well-intentioned people make mistakes that result in serious consequences that can damage a city’s public image. Even if a municipal council inadvertently violates the Texas Open Meetings Act, it could still face disciplinary proceedings.