Reno council's actions a potential open meetings violation

Mar. 17—Despite a vote to table and adjourn and the walkout of three aldermen, the Reno city council earlier this month appeared to approve an ordinance to call for a May election. But did they really?

Roughly five minutes into the special meeting March 6, a motion to table the agenda — which included three action items pertaining to the May election, swapping out signers on an account and changing banks for merchant accounts — was seconded and voted on, with three of the four aldermen voting in favor.

Mayor Sam White called upon city attorney Dottie Palumbo's advice, noting that "the council has voted to table this meeting."

Palumbo urged the council to follow through with the agenda — which included calling for the May election for mayor, Place 2 and Place 4 seats, as well as a special election for Place 1 — despite the previous vote.

"We called the election on Jan. 23," Deputy Pro Tem Hernando Herrera said, to which Palumbo clarified that action was approving an election contract.

"But we didn't officially approve the ordinance calling the election, which is necessary to hold the election," she said.

Place 5's Jeff Davis questioned continued discussions after the vote to table the agenda — with Palumbo again encouraging the council to take action on the election ordinance, which was due to the county election administrator the following day, the last day for a governing body of a political subdivision to deliver notice of election to the county office, according to the Texas Secretary of State.

"[Parker County Elections Administrator] Crickett Miller is expecting this ordinance to be passed tonight and sent to her tomorrow," Palumbo told the council. "You should not delay any action."

Though the general election order occurred after the Feb. 17 deadline set by the Secretary of State, a provision in the Texas Election Code notes that the deadline does not affect the validity of the election, as it is a uniform election date under Texas law.

Minutes later, Herrera got up and left the room, noting the council no longer had a quorum.

"Since you've established a quorum, the fact that one council member left does not affect the rest of your meeting. You can go on with your agenda items," Palumbo said. "There's an attorney general opinion on that."

Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney and a Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, said he was unaware of any such attorney general opinion.

"And I do not believe there is such an opinion as it would conflict with requirement for the presence of a quorum in order to fall within the definition of a 'meeting' in order to take action," he said.

Moments later, Robinson reiterated the vote to table the meeting, noting the meeting was "adjourned" as both he and Shelli Swift got up and walked out, leaving White and Mayor Pro Tem Katie Tucker as the lone members in council chambers.

Palumbo again referenced the attorney general opinion, adding that since there was "still one voting council member left," the meeting could be carried on, and approval of the agenda items was voted on, 2-0.

Multiple messages for Palumbo seeking reference to the opinion were not returned by press time.

A message left for the press secretary of the Texas Attorney General's Office was also not returned.

"Before you adjourn, if we need to put these items back on to ratify under consent on the next agenda, we will," she said. "But until then, your actions are valid."

The Texas Local Government Code, however, indicates otherwise.

The code specifically addresses a quorum for a Type A General-Law Municipality — like Reno — must include two-thirds of the number of council members for a called meeting.

Language also specifically addresses that the mayor does not vote except in a case where their vote is needed to break a tie.

"You can't vote without a quorum and they continued with the meeting and passed this stuff," Swift told the Weatherford Democrat when reached by phone this week. "Now Dottie is saying they had a quorum to start out with so it continues on. What she didn't say was once the meeting's over with, it's a done deal.

"Once we adjourned, that meeting was over with."

Swift said she left the meeting out of frustration over not being given enough information to make an informed vote on items, particularly regarding the bank change, and was only given the agenda, not the whole packet.

"When it came up time, I'm like 'they're gonna hand us something at the last minute' — they do that a lot — and we've got about two seconds to look it over on how to vote," she said. "If you can't give us information to vote in a good way, then I don't want to vote on it.

"I am not actually understanding how they passed this stuff when it wasn't a legitimate meeting."

It's not the first time concerns over violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act have been brought up with the city of Reno.

The council, in August of 2021, came under fire after presenting then-Police Chief Tony Simmons with a copy of a letter containing accusations of "incompetency, corruption, misconduct or malfeasance," during open session.

The item had been listed on the agenda under executive session, but the letter's contents were not disclosed during open session, despite discussion and action taken by signing the letter and presenting it to Simmons.

Violations of the open meeting act may constitute prosecution by the attorney general's office, and the city could face a lawsuit to void the action taken at the meeting.

White himself is named in a lawsuit filed by Reno citizens who had been lobbying for a vote for disincorporation on the May ballot.

A petition signed by some 490 residents was submitted to the city and Parker County elections in August requesting the mayor order an election for disincorporation.

In a special meeting in August, however, the council voted unanimously to reject the petition, saying roughly 120 of the signatures were invalid due to "same signer," "questionable signature does not match initials of person," different addresses than what is listed with the county elections office, "did not date when they signed the petition," "appears same person signed for both" and "printed in signature line, S appears same as signature for [name deleted]," according to a list sent out by the city.

Three residents filed a civil suit against White on Oct. 4 in 415th District Court of Parker County, requesting the court issue a Writ of Mandamus commanding the mayor to order the election.

Eric Hunter, one of the three plaintiffs, said a motion filed in December for summary judgement was denied, with a judge granting a request for a trial. As of Friday, a trial date had not yet been set.