The city of Hitchcock has at least twice recently violated state laws meant to ensure government transparency and public access to public documents held by the government.
It did so in attempting the simple feat of hiring a couple of people, one of the most basic and straightforward tasks governments must periodically perform.
One of the violations occurred Tuesday, when commissioners culled a list of seven job applicants for two key leadership positions — city administrator and police chief — down to two candidates for each job.
The trouble is, commissioners were behind closed doors in executive session when they decided which four of the seven candidates they would interview for the jobs. They went into executive session with a list of seven names, and came out with a list of four names. That’s illegal under state law. It’s not even in a gray area; it’s just flat illegal.
The law allows city councils, commissions and the like to sometimes deliberate behind closed doors. They are forbidden, however, from making decisions anywhere but in an open session that was posted in advance. They are required to publish an agenda listing anything on which they might take action, and the agenda must provide enough detail for the public to be reasonably forewarned.
They can talk and debate and discuss in closed session, but they can’t vote, or decide, or agree, or come to consensus about, or settle on, or arrive at a conclusion, or strike a bargain, or make a deal, or do anything else that’s a synonym for take action.
To comply with the law, the commission should have reconvened in open session, named the four candidates in a motion and voted in public about whether to interview them.
This was not some highly technical violation of open government law. It was an egregious violation of the most fundamental principle encoded in the law — that people empowered to take action on the public’s behalf must do so in public view.
The city also violated state law by refusing to disclose the names and other relevant information — the resumes and other documents that all seven applicants had submitted for the jobs — in response to a request The Daily News filed under the Texas Open Records Act.
Like the violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, this violation was clear and was compounded when Mayor Dorothy Childress and other commissioners refused to name the finalists they had settled on during the executive session or give additional details, such as where those people work and live.
Commissioner Monica Cantrell, who, to her great credit, is among the few elected Hitchcock leaders who’ll answer a question, attempted to explain the city’s action.
“I don’t know if I can name them, there will be two finalists for each position and we plan to interview all of them, but if we release names and information and they should say ‘I’m not interested,’ it might put us in a bind,” Cantrell said.
“The same goes for their current positions — if we release where they live, they might not want their current employers to know they’re looking for new employment.”
All of that might be true, but none of it matters. The fact is, most applications for public employment are, without question, public records. The only exceptions are applications for superintendent of a public school district and the chief executive of a college or university.
Three things come to mind in this situation.
One is that the city commission has put itself in a precarious legal position. Because of these violations, everything the commission subsequently does, such as actually hiring somebody, can be undone if some resident or other interested party were to challenge it in court.
Another is that the city should arrange with the Texas Attorney General’s Office for some basic training on how to function without violating the state’s open government laws.
And finally, Hitchcock residents should be asking themselves whether the city is capable of not breaking more complicated laws — competitive bidding laws, equal employment laws, wage and hour laws, a whole body of government ethics laws and civil rights laws, to name a few — the violation of which can get very expensive to resolve.
• Michael A. Smith