Rescheduling Open Meetings in Texas Across a Range of Catastrophes
What do you do if you cannot hold your properly posted City Council meeting at the scheduled time? This is an issue many municipality’s face in Texas at some point, and more so than ever now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Anyone that has lived in Texas for more than a few years already knows that our great state is fraught with unforeseen disasters of all kinds. If we aren’t flooding or blowing away, we’re dealing with droughts or pandemics. What is a City to do when their best laid plans go astray? Well, they simply call their City Attorney and learn about section 551.0411 of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA).
Section 551.0411 of TOMA provides the procedures to be followed if faced with a situation that prevents your City from continuing a meeting that has already been called to order, or holding a properly posted meeting at the scheduled time. Subsection (a) of this statute allows for a properly posted meeting to be recessed and reconvened the following “regular business day” without re-posting notice, as long as this is done in good faith and not to circumvent the open meetings act. This subsection can be used in situations when a meeting that has already been called to order needs to end abruptly due to some unforeseen circumstance. If the governing body of a City ever finds themselves in such a situation, then subsection (a) allows them to recess the meeting to the following day without having to post notice of the reconvened meeting. Unfortunately, if something prevents the Council from reconvening the recessed meeting the next day, they cannot hold that meeting until it has been properly noticed as required by 551.041.
In contrast, if some unforeseen event is preventing your City from calling a properly posted meeting to order, you could find the relief you need under subsection (b). This subsection of TOMA tells us that a meeting which has been properly posted but prevented from taking place due to a catastrophe may be held within 72 hours as long as the action is taken in good faith and not to circumvent TOMA. Notice must be provided according to 551.045 of TOMA, which says that the notice must be posted for at least one hour before the meeting starts.
Additionally, subsection (c) provides a list of events that are considered a catastrophe under 551.0411. Under this statute a catastrophe is defined as a condition or occurrence that interferes physically with the ability of a municipality to conduct a meeting, including a fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, wind, rain, snow storm, power failure, transportation failure, interruption of communication facilities, epidemic, riot, civil disturbance, enemy attack or other actual or threatened act of lawlessness or violence. Considering the current times we are living in this subsection of TOMA can be a great tool to turn to if you are prevented from holding your properly posted meeting at the scheduled time.
The majority of municipalities in Texas are currently holding their meetings via teleconference or videoconference due to the outbreak of Covid-19. What happens if that videoconference or teleconference software isn’t functioning properly at the time for the scheduled meeting? Thankfully, subsection (c) defines a catastrophe to include the “interruption of communication facilities.” Platforms used to facilitate communications through videoconference or teleconference can be considered “communication facilities.” If a municipality is experiencing issues with their software that prevents them from holding their meeting then this can be construed as an interruption in those communication facilities.
The meeting can be reconvened within 72 hours as long as notice of that reconvened meeting is posted within one hour of the meeting being called to order. In light of the current status of the world, this hidden gem of a statute provides municipalities in Texas the ability to operate in the face of an unanticipated disaster such as Covid-19, a provision which is proving invaluable to the continued functionality of our local governments.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.