Huntsville City Council votes to make it almost impossible to review “Forbidden Four” job performance.
Eclipsed by the sound and fury of the Mobile Home fight at Tuesday Night’s Huntsville City Council Meeting was yet another controversial affair that involved the restriction of someone’s rights.
In contrast to the highly-publicized public reaction to the property rights issue earlier on the evening’s agenda, this item involved the right of individual Council members to place items of public business on the Council’s agenda.
It’s a complicated issue so here’s a little background:
Texas State Law requires that all items to be discussed and possibly acted upon by the City Council must be placed on a formal agenda and posted at City Hall and on the City website at least 72 hours before the Council meets to discuss the item. All such discussions must be open to the public, except for a few specific items where the law allows the discussion to be held in private; those private meetings are known as Executive Session.
A consequence of that law is that it prevents a quorum (5 or more members of our 9–member Council) from discussing any subject in private ahead of time. They are prohibited from discussing it as a group. They are prohibited from discussing it in a series of separate meetings known as a “walking quorum.”
To avoid violating this State law, standard practice in Texas has long been to allow any member of a governing body to place any legitimate item of public business on an upcoming agenda. That has also long been the practice in Huntsville.
Walking a legal tightrope around the “Forbidden Four”:
On Tuesday night, after a heated debate and a narrow 5-4 vote, the Huntsville City Council chose to limit a Council member’s right to place an item on the Agenda. For at least one topic, there is now a requirement that three members of the Council agree to placing an Item on an agenda. It is now impossible for a Council member to add any item to the Agenda if it happens to pertain to the job performance of any one of the four key City employees (we’ll call them the Forbidden Four) that are hired by, fired by, and answer directly to the City Council.
The “Forbidden Four” include: the City Manager, the City Secretary, the City Attorney and the Municipal Judge. All other City employees are hired by and answer, directly or indirectly, to the City Manager.
The reason given to justify this action was that one of the other Councilmembers was sometimes unhappy with something that the City Manager was doing and asked for a discussion of that by the full Council.
The four members who disagreed with the restriction argued that it was not only their rights under the City Charter, but also their responsibilities to their constituents to know what all of the “Forbidden Four” are doing. They argued that they have the right and the responsibility to discuss those issues when they disagree with something that any of the “Forbidden Four” are doing.
They also argued that this erosion of rights, once begun, could easily be extended to prevent other equally legitimate items of public business from coming before the Council and to the attention of the public.
The problem is pretty clear:
The first issue with this new requirement is that any Council member that wants to add the “Forbidden Four” topic to the Agenda could easily be charged with a “Walking Quorum” violation of the law. How else would anyone on Council be able to round up 2 additional members to obtain the 3 needed unless they’re calling each one in succession? It is highly doubtful that any member of Council will risk violating state law in order to get an item on the Agenda. This will effectively eliminate Council’s ability to monitor, evaluate, and assess the job performance of any of the “Forbidden Four” employees.
The second issue is that of free speech and a Council member’s ability to adequately represent his/her constituents. If residents of a specific Ward are unhappy with or feel that they’re being treated unfairly by one of the “Forbidden Four” then how are their concerns to be heard? Who can address the issues of public employee job performance if their voice on Council is silenced? Prohibiting a Council member from expressing the constituents’ concerns on City Council will effectively silence the citizens of the City of Huntsville.