A Texas appraisal district breaks open meetings law

For a year, the board of directors of the Tarrant Appraisal District has unknowingly violated the Texas open-meetings law that requires government bodies to post their agendas publicly 72 hours before a meeting.

The idea, one of the most basic in participatory democracy, is to alert the public to topics that might be of interest so people can attend.

In a random check with the Tarrant County clerk’s office to see who follows the 72-hour rule, The Watchdog found that the district had routinely missed the deadline.

Under state law, if the agenda is not properly posted 72 hours before a meeting, any votes taken during the meeting could be considered illegal. A concerned party could challenge the action in a lawsuit and nullify a vote.

“I am shocked,” district Executive Director and Chief Appraiser Jeffery Law said. “To hear you say we are the No. 1 violator — that absolutely blows me away.”

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Law said his office staff mails the agenda a week before each meeting to the clerk’s office. Apparently, the mail is slow in arriving. Month after month.

The law requires postings to be on a bulletin board in a place convenient to the public three days before a meeting. Weekends count as regular days. When an agenda arrives at the clerk’s office, it is immediately stamped with the date and time. Then it is posted on a bulletin board and on the county website.

The Watchdog compared called meeting times for the district with the time stamp from the clerk’s office. The deadlines for the June 17 and June 30 meetings were missed by one day and two days, respectively.

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Other missed deadlines for district meetings in the past year: April 22 (one hour), Feb. 15 (two days), Feb. 4 (four hours), Jan. 21 (one day), Dec. 3 (one day), Oct. 15 (90 minutes), Sept. 17 (one day) and July 9, 2010 (one day).

Theoretically, a taxpayer in dispute with the district could file a lawsuit challenging any actions taken at those meetings.

The clerk’s office can’t compel governments to follow the law. The Texas attorney general’s office says enforcement is left to local district attorneys. The Tarrant County district attorney’s office says unintentionally missed deadlines are not considered criminal offenses. Actions taken at these meetings are best challenged by interested parties in lawsuits.

Boards that do a good job of meeting the requirements include the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, Trinity River Authority, Tarrant Regional Water District and Tarrant County Hospital District, which has been known to cancel meetings if an agenda is posted a few minutes late.

Houston lawyer Joe Larsen, a board member at the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said, “When you abridge the amount of notice you give, you are basically abridging the right of participation.”

“Until the people of Texas, the citizens of Tarrant County and any other county begin to take notice and make this an issue, the district attorneys are going to continue to ignore it because they get pressure from their co-officeholders not to enforce it and they don’t get much pressure from the public to enforce it. So to them, it’s an easy call.”

Law said: “I want to thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. It was never our intention to act in any kind of manner that would mislead the public or hide our meetings from public view.”

From now on, the district will post notices on its own website — www.TAD.org — in addition to the clerk’s office.

 “I am taking corrective action immediately beginning today to make sure that all of our meetings are held in strict compliance of the law,” Law said. “This is going to be fixed.”

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