March 7, 2013
Senator Watson issued this statement today after joining with Attorney General Greg Abbott to discuss Senate Bill 1297, which allows local governments to create publicly viewable message boards for government officials to discuss public business in a public way:
“Government should function efficiently and effectively. And the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing.
“No matter where folks fall on the political spectrum, they should agree with both of those statements. The notion that those ideas can co-exist – that government can be both functional and transparent – is inherent to our democracy. Unfortunately, far too often, people don’t see these things that way. And, importantly, sometimes those things truly feel like they are in conflict.
“But today, technology is helping put to rest the notion that transparency must be sacrificed in the name of functionality, or vice versa. Technology can be a help. A tool. But we need to figure out how to use it. We need to have government keep up. And this innovative bill we’re sharing with you today uses technology to ensure that officials at every level of government can communicate when they need to, the way we’ve all become accustomed to doing, and the public can be in on that conversation.
“Briefly, Senate Bill 1297 allows government officials to communicate via an online message board, and it requires those conversations to be prominently displayed online, publicly viewable for a month, and publicly accessible beyond that. General Abbott will discuss more of the bill’s details.
“I just want to say that he and I are here together today because no matter which political party we belong to or what history we share, we’re both very excited about the possibilities of this kind of legislation. He’s the chief enforcer of open meetings laws. I’m a guy with a local government background. Together, we believe we can help with that function and transparency synergy. We both support government that’s transparent, we both work for government that’s efficient, and we’re both cheerleaders for technology that allows government to be both of those things.
“As I said, this is a new idea. I think it’s a landmark tool for government. It springs from a sincere desire to help public servants do their work and help the public know what that work entails. I’m enthusiastic to be working on it, and I thank General Abbott for his innovation, work, support and enthusiasm on the bill as well.”
More on Senate Bill 1297:
To ensure public business is conducted in an open and transparent manner, the Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of a state or local governmental body’s board or commission from communicating with their fellow board members unless they are in an open meeting. As a result, a quorum of the board cannot deliberate electronically – or otherwise – between publicly posted meetings about official business or policy matters.
Senator Watson’s legislation seeks to expand the Texas Open Meetings Act by creating a new tool that governmental bodies can use to facilitate electronic communications between board members – while still protecting the public’s interest in open and transparent government. If enacted into law, Senator Watson’s proposal would give the public greater insight into officials’ thought processes by allowing them to view the open discussions on an official online forum. Although the bill authorizes communication among board members, they would be limited to that purpose and could not take official action except in a properly posted open meeting.
Senator Watson’s legislation would impose the following requirements and controls on official message boards: