Members of the Legislature and other governmental bodies could communicate in an online forum and not break the law under proposed legislation filed Thursday that would expand the Texas Open Meetings Act.
“Government should function efficiently and effectively, and the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the author of Senate Bill 1297, said Thursday. “This bill uses technology to ensure that officials at every level of government can communicate when they need to.”
Currently, the Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of local and state government boards from discussing government business unless it is in an open meeting that has been announced to the public. However, the act, which was first adopted in 1967 and revised in 1973, offers no guidance as to what is permissible in an online setting.
SB 1297 would allow for public officials to create online message boards that they could use to communicate government business. The boards would be available for the public to see.
The law would require all communication between officials to be in writing, which must be made available in real time. All postings would be required to be viewable for 30 days after posting, must be electronically archived for at least two years and are subject to Texas Public Information Act requests. No votes or official actions by the members of a board are allowed in these virtual arenas.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who joined Watson on Thursday in announcing the legislation, said the bill would bring open government laws and modern technology together.
“For more than four decades, Texas has had some of the strongest open government laws in the nation,” Abbott said. “Though these laws continue to protect the transparency that is so vital to democracy, the public always benefits when modern technology is harnessed to make government more accessible.”
However, Abbott stressed that this would not be an unfunded mandate. Government boards are not going to be required to implement this forum, and all necessary funding toward its implementation would up to each governmental entity to find, he said.
Despite being referred to as a “message board” in the legislation, the bill's intention is not for the message board to be implemented in the traditional sense. Members of the community would not be allowed to make posts.
“This is not going to be an open blog,” Abbott said. “Only the members will be able to participate.”
Abbott acknowledged that the lack of online access for some Texans could provide a challenge, but he pointed to public libraries as a potential solution.
“We can’t let the exception drive the rule,” Watson added. “So many more will know what’s going on thanks to technology.”
“We are bringing the Open Meetings Act into the Twitter age, the Facebook age.”