At a Feb. 22 meeting, District 8 council member Chris Nettles praised his colleagues for holding themselves to a high standard during the redistricting process.
“If you look across the United States, and then look even closer across the state level and the county level, Fort Worth has had the most transparent redistricting process,” Nettles said. “We have made sure we have heard and listened to the residents.”
However, frequent changes to meeting times and agendas have led to apparent violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Two special redistricting meetings were held on Feb. 22 and March 1. The Report attempted to locate the agendas for the two special redistricting meetings on the city’s designated meeting and agenda page and the Fort Worth Television page directly before and following the meeting, where meeting materials are typically posted. The agendas were not available online.
In a statement, Bethany Warner, communications coordinator for the City Council and Mayor Mattie Parker, said Fort Worth “acknowledges the City’s main web calendar and FWTV page do not currently show listings for these two particular meetings.”
City staff are looking into the technical cause of the error, Warner said. However, the city posted both agendas ahead of the meeting in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, she said. Warner supplied screenshots to the Report she said prove the agendas were posted to the city’s main web calendar before the meeting.
Regardless the city violated the Open Meetings Act, according to Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer specializing in media law and a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“It’s more than clear that they’re meeting to discuss governmental business,” Larsen said. “It’s quite apparent that this is a violation. It’s so clear, I don’t even know what else to say about it.”
What is the punishment for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act?
There are four provisions in the Act that have an applicable criminal penalty. Citizens can sue in civil court to reverse a violation of the Act. If a member of a governing body knowingly participates in a closed meeting that will not have a certified agenda or recording of the meeting.
Physical copies of the agenda were not made available at the special redistricting meetings, Warner said. Printed copies of meeting agendas are typically provided to City Council meeting attendees.
Redistricting meetings don’t often draw a packed house. That’s precisely why Rick Herring, moderator of the neighborhood group Riverside Alliance, thinks it’s important to show up.
“I always keep other Riverside neighborhood leaders and advocates informed of what I learn (at the meetings) and they have been kind of dependent on me to monitor our progress,” Herring said.
As a seasoned attendee of city meetings, Herring said he has been able to stay updated because he attends the meetings regularly and hears council members discuss when they plan to meet again. Agendas for meetings have not been easily accessible, he said.
“I haven’t really seen them posted anywhere. They probably are out there somewhere, but they’re not jumping out at you,” Herring said. “But for me personally, that’s not an issue because there’s not much to the agendas.”
The council has failed to publish agendas for public meetings ahead of redistricting meetings before. A meeting was canceled and rescheduled in October 2021 because the agenda was not posted in advance of a planned joint meeting with the City Council and the Redistricting Task Force, according to Warner.
The arrival of six new council members, including Parker, renewed hopes for a more transparent redistricting process. The council passed a resolution in October 2021 outlining rules it planned on following to ensure the redistricting process was transparent and encouraged participation.
What did the resolution initially require:
- A Redistricting Task Force will evaluate citizen-produced maps.
- The map chosen by the task force will be a starting point for any future maps produced by the City Council.
- Council members will have to provide a written rationale for changes to the map.
- They will conduct at least five public hearings.
- The council will exclusively deliberate about redistricting in public meetings, and the changes made to the maps will be made on a computer screen visible to the public.
As the redistricting process went on, council members passed an updated resolution that rolled back the transparency standards they previously set. Now, the City Council can give notice of posted meetings as late as 72 hours in advance, the minimum required by law. In addition, the city does not have to produce a written explanation for all changes and is not required to hold public comment meetings in communities.
“I think this started out as a very smooth and transparent process,” Herring said. “However, the City Council has made so many changes on the fly that I think it made it very hard for city staff to keep the redistricting web page up to date.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.