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Attorney: Sinton’s closed-door meetings illegal

CORPUS CHRISTI – Sinton school Superintendent Steve VanMatre would like to know where he fell short in convincing city officials to back a wind turbine project at Sinton High School.

But he doesn’t know, because two city boards held their discussions and made a policy decision behind closed doors.

“This is, on its face, illegal,” said Joe Larsen, an attorney and director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, an open government advocacy group.

City Attorney Heather Meister could not be reached for comment.

City Manager Jackie Knox said the board members requested the closed session because they knew a crowd of school officials would be attending.

“It was an intimidation deal of having all the school people there,” Knox said. “It’s just small town politics. They felt intimidated if they had to discuss it out in open session.”

Larsen said the closed-door meetings render the city’s decision voidable by any person who wants to challenge it in court, and it opens the board members to prosecution for misdemeanor violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The chief prosecutor in San Patricio County, District Attorney Patrick Flanigan, could not be reached for comment.

School officials went to a joint meeting of the city’s Board of Adjustment and the Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday night to state their case for two wind turbines at the school. VanMatre said the federally funded project would give students a rare opportunity to apply math, science, physics and engineering lessons in a way that directly impacts them.

Opponents worried about noise, visual impacts, and whether granting variances to the city’s wind turbine ordinance would set a precedent for disregarding the rights of property owners whom the ordinances are meant to protect.

It was the most controversial issue to come before city officials in months, according to residents and officials at the meeting, where visitors packed the city’s council chambers and spilled into the lobby.

The two boards listened to the arguments from school officials and residents before the Planning and Zoning Commission went into closed session for about 20 minutes. When they reconvened in public, they announced a recommendation to deny the variances. They did not take a public vote.

The Board of Adjustment, which has the final say over variances, then went into closed session for about 70 minutes to talk about whether to accept the recommendation. They reconvened and voted in public, with no discussion, to reject the variances for the school district.

There had been questions about the cost of the project, how much it would cost to maintain, how much energy savings the district would net, how loud the turbines would be. What would be the impacts from the shadows cast by spinning blades? Could the district sell electricity back to the power grid? How would children learn from the turbines? What’s the impact to a nearby residential developer? Does having a symbol of green energy and technological progress in town outweigh the objections?

Residents walked away from Monday’s meeting with no idea how their representatives felt about any of these issues.

Larsen said the planning commission and Board of Adjustment violated state law in several ways. First, neither board announced the reason for its closed session before convening in private. Meister, the city attorney, would not cite the section of the Open Meetings Act that applied when the Caller-Times objected to closed session.

“I can think of no exception that would apply and quite obviously they couldn’t either,” Larsen said.

Next, the planning commission made a policy decision in private without taking a public vote. Finally, the Open Meetings Act has no exemption that allows city boards to debate the merits of a variance in private.

Larsen predicted city officials might try to rely on an exemption that allows government bodies to confer with attorneys in private on legal issues, but he said that argument is thin.

“Obviously this was not a discussion with their lawyer,” he said. “They went in to talk about whether they should or shouldn’t do it. The whole idea on this is public accountability. At least in the case of the Board of Adjustment, the public knows how the board members voted. In the Planning and Zoning instance they don’t even know who stands where. It’s astonishing.”