Almost two decades ago, when I came to town to purchase the News Herald, two local businessmen took me to lunch at Meadowbrook Country Club. Many of you know them.
“We want to tell you how we do things here,” they said. I had published something quite newsworthy but which they didn’t feel should get local ink. I ate their lunch and ignored their advice.
In my “retirement” job as a paid, part-time intern/archivist at city hall, I’ve come to understand the genesis of their lunchtime advice.
City business back in the day was a private business. The public, the great unwashed who paid the bills, got enough information to make them happy. Most voters were working from can-see to can’t-see and as long as their kids had a park and a pool, the streets were paved and the trash mostly picked up, they were happy to foot the bill.
They were, after all, building a city. They built a nice one, too, but not without ducking some of the legal niceties.
Even then, Texas had a smattering of laws designed to keep Steve and Sally Schmuck informed about the comings and goings, the ups and downs at city hall. For example, state law going all the way back to the 1930s, required that – except in the case of an emergency – any new ordinance had to be read (or at least presented) at three consecutive city council/commission meetings.
That “emergency” exception came in handy. Until well into the ’60s I could find no evidence of any ordinance adopted here under the conventional rules... well, except for utility rate increases – those were dragged out a while. Every new ordinance here was declared an emergency and passed – voted on three times, it’s true, even if almost in one breath – at a single meeting of the city commission. That business of reading it at consecutive meetings, a law written to allow the taxpayers room to react, was completely ignored, a waste... it would seem... of time.
Even into the ’70s, more city rules were passed as emergencies than otherwise.
Closed-door meetings, once they were codified by the Texas Open Meetings Act and given the dignified title of Executive Session, offered city commissioners here (and elsewhere, we’d guess) all kinds of shelter from public inspection. The title offered opportunity to converse privately about issues that might be uncomfortable if those conversations were held out in the open.
For example, in 1976 official conversation about the city budget was held behind closed doors. Four-plus decades ago, the city commission did the budget planning in executive session and, later, presented it to the public.
From a distance of 40 years, it would be hard to ascribe a motive to the decision, but when the commissioners wanted a discussion of whether the city or developers would stand the cost of water and sewer taps in subdivisions, the intricacies of rule-making – discussion of an ordinance governing subdivisions – was done away from the prying eyes of the taxpayers and the developers. As far as we know, nobody asked them to justify the secrecy.
Business was accomplished and, if any complained, their mutterings were not memorialized in city records.
That, one supposes, is how things were done.
A favorite tidbit from the minute book, July 2, 1970:
“J.M. Climer, Police Chief, reported to the Commission that some hippies had moved into the city park, staying day and night, and he had reports of an anticipated gathering here of two or three hundred this weekend. After discussion, the City Manager was directed to talk with the City Attorney about preparing an ordinance prohibiting gatherings in public places.”