Killeen City Manager Kent Cagle, through the city’s communications office, refused to explain why council members on Tuesday discussed a petition to decriminalize marijuana in closed session.
“Mr. Cagle will have no response today,” Killeen spokesman Marcus Hood told the Killeen Daily Herald on Thursday after several questions were sent to the city manager through Hood.
But Councilman Jose Segarra offered his reasoning for entering executive something — a move that frustrated several residents during a workshop on Tuesday after a public hearing on decriminalization was scheduled but not included on the agenda.
‘Swearing an oath’
“The city attorney wanted to discuss with council the legal ramification, since some on council and media had asked about this,” Segarra said. “Last week, the media asked about us swearing an oath to uphold the laws — not just city ordinance but state laws. And she felt she would provide some legal advice.”
Some residents, including Louie Minor of Ground Game Texas, and others took Killeen City Council members to task on Tuesday for not giving them the opportunity to comment on the petition that would decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in the city.
“On June 15, Mayor Pro Tem Ken Wilkerson made a motion for a public hearing on July 19, and that motion passed, 7-0, by this body,” Minor said. “Yet, it is not on the agenda for a public hearing. This body owes tonight the citizens an answer on why we don’t have a public hearing.”
Minor is a Killeen businessman and candidate for Precinct 4 Bell County commissioner. Ground Game is a group of progressive Democrats advocating for the decriminalization initiative.
Cagle took responsibility for the confusion on Tuesday but offered no further explanation on why the public hearing scheduled for that night did not happen.
In workshops, public hearings are discussed only in preparation for special or regular meetings. No comments are accepted and no votes taken.
Julie Oliver, co-founder and executive director of Ground Game Texas, also criticized the council Tuesday for its handling of how the petition has been presented to voters.
“We’re proposing a ballot initiative for misdemeanor amounts of marijuana,” she said. “Under the Texas Constitution, Killeen has all the powers of self-governance, except what is specifically taken away by the state. It’s called ‘home rule,’ and home rule cities like Killeen have put the powers in the hands of their citizens. I call it direct democracy.”
David Bass, a veteran who has PTSD and a prescription for medical marijuana through the state’s Compassionate Use Program, also criticized the council on Tuesday.
“I have really been looking forward to this pubic hearing, he said. “I told the Killeen Daily Herald this is how government is supposed to work. But today, I understand instead of a public discussion that you’re going to go behind closed doors. This is not how government is supposed to work.”
July 26 hearing
Interim City Attorney Holli Clements told the Herald that entering executive session was necessary to provide legal advice to the council.
“Pursuant to Texas Government Code Sec. 551.071, the City Council met in executive session to consult with me regarding legal ramifications of the initiative ordinance petition and process,” she said. “There will be a public hearing at the July 26 City Council meeting as planned, where citizens will again have the opportunity to speak on the initiative ordinance and where City Council will consider and have the opportunity to discuss the merits of the petition in open session.”
During workshops, no votes may be taken under the Texas Open Meetings Act.
In Killeen, about 1,400 registered voters signed the petition, including Councilmen Ken Wilkerson, Ramon Alvarez and Riakos Adams. None of them, along with other council members except Segarra, answered the newspaper’s questions about why they went into closed session on Tuesday.
OPEN OR CLOSED?
The Texas Open Meetings Act allows council members to consult the city attorney in executive session on legal matters — specifically when it involves pending or contemplated litigation or settlement offers. And one of the questions the Herald asked Cagle is if the council expects to be sued over the possible adoption of a decriminalization ordinance.
Generally, no one who attends executive sessions at the municipal level is willing to disclose publicly the content of those discussions. But the Open Meetings Act does not inherently forbid it.
“Section 551.146 does not prohibit members of the governmental body or other persons who attend an executive session from making public statements about the subject matter of the executive session. Other statutes or duties, however, may limit what a member of the governmental body may say publicly.”
Matters also pertaining to personnel, real estate or economic development negotiations with prospective businesses are allowable exceptions under the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Under state law, if enough validated signatures are collected, council members must vote to call an election or decide whether to adopt an ordinance on the initiative.
The draft ordinance for Killeen requires that the city’s “police officers shall not issue citations or make arrests for Class A or Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana offenses” except in limited circumstances.
The ordinance would apply to possession of marijuana in amounts less than 4 ounces.