March 21, 2015 the City Council met for a special meeting after having cancelled the meeting it had planned for Thursday, March 19th.
The 12th item on the agenda was to “Discuss and consider a proposal from the WPPOA on the transfer of assets of the WPPOA to the City Of Sandy Oaks, Texas.” The item was placed on the agenda by Mayor Jim Clement.
At the start of the discussion, Mayor Clement recused himself from the meeting stating that “There are some members of the community that think there’s conflict of interest – Whatever’s going to be said today, I have had no part in any discussion and as long as I’m mayor I’m going to recuse myself from this meeting. Mr Gay.”
Alderman Earnest Gay, as Mayor pro tempor, began to lead the meeting. Immediately after introducing the item on the agenda, the City Attorney, Art Martinez de Vara, suggested the Council meet in closed session.
“Before we get into discussion I would like a brief executive session just to go over a few”
Alderman Micki Ball made a motion to recuse Charlotte Rabe, who is both City Clerk and WPPOA vice president, from the meeting. Alderman Gay was against this because Rabe wasn’t a voting member, but Martinez de Vara said he would discuss matters in executive session and Rabe did recuse herself.
Alderman Gay led into the executive session by saying
At this time we will go into executive session under the 551 Open Meetings Act to discuss this property transfer.
Everyone then had to leave the WPPOA clubhouse, leaving only Joel Ortega, David Tremblay, Earnest Gay, Micki Ball, Douglas Tomasini, and Art Martinez de Vara inside.
The Texas Open Meetings Act states:
Sec. 551.101. REQUIREMENT TO FIRST CONVENE IN OPEN MEETING.
If a closed meeting is allowed under this chapter, a governmental body may not conduct the closed meeting unless a quorum of the governmental body first convenes in an open meeting for which notice has been given as provided by this chapter and during which the presiding officer publicly:
(1) announces that a closed meeting will be held; and
(2) identifies the section or sections of this chapter under which the closed meeting is held.
Citizens were given no reason why the agenda item needed to be discussed in a closed meeting.
The Texas Open Meetings Act defines the penalty for an illegal closed session as either a fine between $100-$500, jail time between 1-6 months, or both:
Sec. 551.144. CLOSED MEETING; OFFENSE; PENALTY.
(a) A member of a governmental body commits an offense if a closed meeting is not permitted under this chapter and the member knowingly:
(1) calls or aids in calling or organizing the closed meeting, whether it is a special or called closed meeting;
(2) closes or aids in closing the meeting to the public, if it is a regular meeting; or
(3) participates in the closed meeting, whether it is a regular, special, or called meeting.
(b) An offense under Subsection (a) is a misdemeanor punishable by:
(1) a fine of not less than $100 or more than $500;
(2) confinement in the county jail for not less than one month or more than six months; or
(3) both the fine and confinement.
(c) It is an affirmative defense to prosecution under Subsection (a) that the member of the governmental body acted in reasonable reliance on a court order or a written interpretation of this chapter contained in an opinion of a court of record, the attorney general, or the attorney for the governmental body.
After the closed meeting the Council let people back into the clubhouse. Alderman David Tremblay made a motion for the City Attorney to “do what was discussed” in the closed session. Alderman Joel Ortega seconded the motion and the Council voted unanimously in favor.
When the City Council meeting was adjourned and a member from the audience asked about the closed session, Aldermen Gay, Tremblay, and Ball all said they couldn’t discuss anything that happened in the closed session because it was against the law.