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Prosecutor Blasts City Council for Secrecy

AUSTIN (CN) - Six members of the Austin City Council and a former member repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by talking about public matters privately, the Travis County Attorney said.

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said in a statement that the unidentified council members have entered into compliance agreements for deferred prosecution.

During a 2-year investigation, county attorneys sifted through 30,000 pages of notes, calendars, cell phone records, personal and office email messages and instant message logs.

"In addition to the systematic one-on-one meetings that were subject of the original complaint, we found that council members regularly deliberated outside of the public's purview by use of almost every modern communication medium that existed," Escamilla said in a statement. "We found probable cause to believe that multiple violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act had occurred."

Austin, the state capital, is the seat of Travis County.

Under the deferred prosecution agreements, council members agreed to take classes on the Open Meetings Act and agreed to comply with record-retention laws.

They agreed to stop holding one-on-one meetings with each other and instead hold public work sessions before each City Council meeting.

They also agreed to meet with one another only on an "as needed" basis and avoid a quorum by not meeting with more than two other council members on a given topic.

New rules on electronic communications via personal devices will be implemented and city staff will be given Open Meetings Act training, as well.

The council members also agreed to create a senior team to review their compliance with legal and ethical obligations.

Escamilla said that if the council members do not comply with their agreements, he will file criminal charges on the previous violations and any new violations.

Council members would face up to $500 in fines and up to 180 days in jail for each violation.

"It is important that a clear signal be sent that TOMA compliance is expected and mandatory," Escamilla said. "The Texas Open Meetings Act is not window dressing for governmental transparency. It's the law."

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