By Victoria Advocate
Doing the public’s business in public is more than a good idea. It’s the law.
The Calhoun Port Authority violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it hired disgraced Congressman Blake Farenthold without any public notice. The public had no opportunity to weigh in on this decision before it was made.
Many have weighed in with howls of protest after it came to light that the port had created a new lobbyist position and agreed to pay Farenthold $160,000 a year to fill it. Regardless of whether you think that’s a bad decision — and it surely is — the legal infraction is how the port’s elected board of directors took this action, not whether they reached the right conclusion.
The Texas Supreme Court decided in 1986 that governmental bodies couldn’t get away with posting vague notices about matters of high public interest and importance.
A favorite dodge for elected officials is to hide everything under the umbrella term of “personnel” when posting the agenda for a public meeting.
But the Supreme Court saw through this tactic and said hiring someone as important as a superintendent, which is what led to the 1986 ruling, had to be done with full disclosure and advance notice.
The public deserves a say in whether its elected officials should hire a superintendent or a police chief or a former congressman who used $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment complaint brought against him.
The port’s lawyers say the six-member elected board of directors gave hiring and firing decisions completely to executive director Charles Hausmann. Thus, board members didn’t have to post a notice about creating a new $160,000 position or hiring Farenthold, the lawyers argue.
This line of reasoning defies logic and credibility. What board would want its executive director to do something as important as create the important and expensive position of lobbyist without its knowledge or consent? Additionally, the Advocate obtained, through an open-records request, copies of emails that reveal Hausmann sent Farenthold the draft of a contract with a line for the board president’s signature and a note saying the board needed to approve the document.
All of this is why the Advocate is prepared to file a Texas Open Meetings complaint against the port in district court in Calhoun County. The point of this complaint is to uphold the principle of open government in Texas.
If the court sides with the newspaper’s legal position, then Farenthold’s hiring will be nullified. But that’s not the point.
The port’s board of directors will be free to go back, post another meeting properly and hire Farenthold again. That is fully permissible under the law.
But the public will know about it this time. Board members will have to listen to their constituents before acting.
That’s not a punishment — it’s how democracy is designed to work. It’s the law.