Killeen’s city manager asked council members not to respond to questions from the Killeen Daily Herald as the city negotiates a major land deal that could bring 4,500 homes to south Killeen.
In an email sent to council members Wednesday, Killeen City Manager Glenn Morrison said that responding to the newspaper’s questions, “could result in an inappropriate deliberation of an item that you are currently negotiating in public meetings as a body.”
Later in the email, Morrison implied that council members might be breaking the law by responding to the questions.
“In order to avoid any potential violations of open meetings law and to allow this discussion to take place in public meetings as intended by the Open Meetings Act, it is best that you not respond to this reporter’s request,” the email stated.
The Texas Open Meetings Act is a state law that prohibits public officials from meeting in private to discuss business matters. Responding to questions from the media, however, is a government-sanctioned practice for publicly elected officials.
Several Texas lawyers versed in the Open Meetings Act said that answering questions from the media would in no way violate the open meetings law, which is written to ensure discussions do not happen behind closed doors.
Buck Wood, a prominent Austin-based open government lawyer, said, “with absolute certainty,” that the council would not violate the Open Meetings Act by responding to the newspaper’s survey.
“First of all, it’s not a negotiation. (The newspaper) is just asking for opinions,” Wood said Friday.
“If (the council) chooses not to talk to (the newspaper) that is their prerogative, but trying to suggest that the open meetings law has anything to do with whether or not you respond to a reporter is just not the law.”
Wood and two colleagues drafted key amendments to the Texas Open Meetings Act in the early 1970s to ensure greater transparency in Texas government.
“There is not any possible violation of the open meetings law. (The city manager) won’t find any lawyer who will say that that was true,” Wood said.
A spokesman for the Texas Attorney General’s office said Friday that the he disagreed with the city manager’s assessment, saying council members would not violate the law by answering the questionnaire.
After hearing the experts’ legal interpretations, several council members agreed to provide answers to the newspaper.
“Why would (the city manager) not want us to answer questions that are about something that is public knowledge?” asked Councilman Jonathan Okray, who agreed to respond to the survey.
District 3 Councilman Terry Clark also said he would respond to the questions.
“I followed the advice of the city manager once he informed me that he had worked with the legal department,” he said. “This is the people’s business and it is discussed in open session.”
Several members of the council said they did not respond to the newspaper’s attempts to contact them because of the city manager’s advice.
One council member, who already had responded to the questionnaire, requested that his comments not be printed after he read Morrison’s email.
In a statement given Thursday, Mayor Dan Corbin echoed the city manager’s email.
“I am not going to answer any of these questions because I don’t think that is an appropriate way to handle the negotiation with the developer on the MUD.”
The Herald plans to run responses from the council after those willing to participate have been given more time to respond.