Note: This page covers information specific to Texas. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The Texas Open Meetings Act ("TOMA") provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in Texas. The law entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes. For more detailed information about Texas open meetings law, please consult the Texas Attorney General's 2010 Open Meetings Act Handbook and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Texas.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
TOMA covers the meetings of "governmental bodies." Texas Gov't Code § 551.001(3) lists a number of state and local government entities that fit into this category:
- a board, commission, department, committee, or agency within the executive or legislative branch of state government that is directed by one or more elected or appointed members;
- a county commissioners court in the state;
- a municipal governing body in the state;
- a deliberative body that has rulemaking or quasi-judicial (i.e., similar to a court) power and that is classified as a department;
- a school district board of trustees;
- a county board of school trustees;
- a county board of education;
- the governing board of a special district created by law;
- a local workforce development board created under state law;
- a nonprofit corporation that is eligible to receive funds under the federal community services block grant program and that is authorized by this state to serve a geographic area of the state; and
- a nonprofit corporation organized under state law that provides a water supply or wastewater service, or both, and is exempt from ad valorem taxation under the tax code.
As a general matter, governmental bodies are multi-member state and local bodies that exercise a government function, such as making rules and setting government policy. At the state level, these bodies must have "one or more elected or appointed members." The term also includes committees of the Texas state legislature. Beyond these generalities, figuring out exactly what bodies are governed by TOMA is a complex task -- consult the 2004 Open Meetings Act Handbook section on governmental bodies for additional details.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the Texas open meetings law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under TOMA, a "meeting" is any gathering of a quorum of members of a governmental body in which they discuss public business or public policy within the body's supervision or control, or at which they consider or take any formal action. The term also applies to information-gathering and fact-finding sessions called by the governmental body where a quorum of members are present and the session relates to the body's public business. The term "quorum" just means a simple majority of members of the governmental body. For example, if a school board has nine members, then five members would be required for a "meeting" of the finance board to take place.
The term "meeting" does not apply to a purely social event unrelated to the governmental body's public business or a "a regional, state, or national convention or workshop, ceremonial event, or press conference, if formal action is not taken and any discussion of public business is incidental to the social function, convention, workshop, ceremonial event, or press conference." Texas Gov't Code § 551.001(4)(B)(iv).
Governmental bodies may not hold meetings by telephone or video conference except under limited circumstances. While the law is not certain on this point, it appears that email communications between members of a governmental body may constitute a meeting. See Opp. Att'y Gen. JC-0307 (deliberations covered by TOMA may include email).
What Are Your Rights?
TOMA gives "the public" the right to attend the meetings of governmental bodies, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. Texas law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend. The right to attend meetings does not include the right to participate or comment. As a matter of practice, however, a governmental body may give the public an opportunity to speak at a meeting. According to the Attorney General, if it does so, it "may set reasonable limits on the number, frequency and length of presentations before it, but it may not unfairly discriminate among speakers for or against a particular point of view."
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Texas law requires governmental bodies to give advance notice of their meetings. Unfortunately, Texas notice requirements are complex. One statutory provision states that governmental bodies must post notice of their meetings in a place readily accessible to the general public for at least seventy-two hours before the scheduled time of the meeting. Texas Gov't Code § 551.043(a). Another statutory provision requires the secretary of state to post notice on the Internet seven days in advance for meetings of a state board, commission, department or officer with statewide jurisdiction. Texas Gov't Code § 551.044(a). The notice must include the time, location, and subject matter to be discussed at the meeting. A complex array of rules governs where different kinds of government bodies must post notice. See the Notice Requirements section of the Attorney General's Handbook for details.
One notable requirement is that school districts must give notice of each meeting to any "news media" that has requested special notice and agreed to reimburse the district for the cost of providing notice. Texas Gov't Code § 551.052. The school district can give notice by telephone, fax, or email. It is not clear whether the term "news media" would cover non-traditional journalists and other online publishers, but you may want to request notice in any event. A school district will have little incentive to deny this simple request. If the school district accepts your request, you should renew it every year to ensure that you continue to receive notice.
Other notice rules apply for special and emergency meetings. See the Open Government Guide: Texas for details.
Minutes and Recordings
TOMA requires governmental bodies to record minutes of their meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection and copying. They may, but need not, make audio or video recordings of their meetings. If a governmental body chooses to do so, however, the recording is a public record that you can access just like ordinary minutes. A governmental body may also broadcast meetings over the Internet, but it is not required to do so.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Texas Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of governmental bodies must be open to the public. If a governmental body wants to hold a closed or "executive" session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under TOMA, a governmental body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of fourteen subject-area exemptions found in Texas Gov't Code §§ 551.071 through 551.088. These exemptions make it permissible for a governmental body to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require it to do so. If a governmental body is dealing with one of these enumerated subject areas, then it may hold a closed session, but it must also convene the executive session as part of an open meeting, and the presiding officer must publicly identify the statutory exemption relied on to close the meeting. Governmental bodies must keep a certified agenda or make a tape recording of the executive session and retain it for at least two years. They do not have to make the agenda or recording public.
For more information on the exceptions to the open meetings requirement, see the Executive Session section of the Attorney General's Handbook and the Open Government Guide: Texas.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you believe that a governmental body has violated your rights, you can sue in Texas state court. Under Texas law, an "interested person, including a member of the news media," may bring a lawsuit for violations of TOMA. See Texas Gov't Code § 551.142. The term "interested person" is broad -- courts have found that a government league, an environmental group, and a local homeowners' group fit the definition. They have also indicated that any individual living in an area affected by the governmental body's authority will qualify as "interested." The CMLP located no Texas case law addressing whether the term "news media" would encompass non-traditional journalists and other online publishers, but there is no reason to suppose that you could not take advantage of this statutory language.
If you file a lawsuit and win, you can obtain a court order requiring that a meeting or meetings be made open to the public in the future, that a governmental body satisfy its notice obligations, or that it provide access to minutes improperly withheld. Under some circumstances, a court may invalidate the past actions of a governmental body taken in violation of TOMA. If you are successful in court, the losing governmental body may have to pay your attorneys' fees and costs.
In the event that you are denied access to a meeting or class of meetings, you probably want to pursue an informal resolution before filing a lawsuit, which ordinarily is a costly and slow solution. You should contact the governmental body in question and inform it that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the agency continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.