One of the responsibilities of a local newspaper is to advocate for its readers in the arena of open and transparent government. Transparency faces a constant battle every two years in the Texas Legislature, where lobbyists who represent local elected officials, paid for with taxpayer money, work tirelessly to get the rules relaxed for their members.
Our position is that the public’s business ought to be conducted in public, not in secret.
Likewise, the actions and discussions of local government bodies ought to be open and accessible to any taxpayer who wishes to attend.
Guided by those principles, we felt it was a slap in the face to the taxpayers in Willow Park when the city quietly made plans for a two-day, off-site workshop this weekend.
We found out entirely by accident that the city plans to conduct this workshop for city council members and city staff at the Hilton Garden in Granbury starting at 1 p.m. Friday, and continuing Saturday morning.
While the idea was discussed at a city council meeting a couple of months ago, it was not decided, and the rationale at the time for doing this was less than compelling.
To then go ahead and plan the meeting and implement the plan outside the scope of public scrutiny was, in our opinion, ill-considered.
When an action of an elected body of this scope is decided, it is incumbent that there ought to at least be an attempt to explain to the taxpayers why this is a good idea.
To simply schedule it and quietly post an agenda on the city’s website where someone may simply stumble upon it reeks of secrecy and engenders distrust. We would not have discovered that the meeting was even happening if we had not been looking for a different meeting agenda.
To then hold the meeting at a distant location, over two days, where again, public scrutiny is made difficult, also adds to the public suspicion.
We do not know any of the answers yet as to why and how this decision was made.
When we learned about the meeting on Tuesday, we submitted an information request to the city. We have still not received the answers we submitted, which include:
When and who approved the off-site workshop in Granbury on July 12-13, 2019?
Was any notice provided to public or press beyond posting on the city website and/or city hall?
What is the projected cost of the workshop?
Have any provisions been made for streaming, or at least recording the discussions to insure that inappropriate issues are not discussed?
Have any provisions been made to accommodate Willow Park taxpayers who wish to attend?
We also asked for a list of everyone attending whose expenses will be covered by the city.
Whatever city officials hope to gain from this out-of-town, two-day meeting will surely be offset by rising distrust and suspicions among the public.
At 2:59 p.m., The Community News received the following press release from the City of Willow Park. Is is shared without edits or modifications below:
The Willow Park City Council and senior staff will hold a retreat on July 12-13 at the Hilton Inn Granbury. The meeting will begin at noon July 12 and 9 a.m. July 13.
This retreat serves as a way for the local government to focus on the mission of the City and develop priorities that align with the values of the City. Council retreats are increasingly common and encouraged as a best practice for planning purposes. Many Texas communities such as Dallas, Lewisville, Leander, San Marcos, Burnet, Murphy, Odessa, Bastrop, and Kyle – to name just a few – do such meetings. Willow Park itself has held such meetings in the past, but found that holding them locally created a number of obstacles that hindered the effectiveness of the meeting.
Retreats are also a way for elected officials and staff to step back from the day-to-day routine and organize around the foundational elements of our service – who we serve, what values we uphold, and what direction we are headed.
It serves as a time for staff to educate council about what they do and how the council can best support them, and allows council to provide direction on matters such as budget and project priorities.
This workshop – and the philosophy behind it – was broached in 2018 and approved last year in the FY 2019 budget by the city council. It was further discussed at two different city council meetings this spring, which were broadcast to Facebook and covered by multiple media outlets. The original budgeted amount for the workshop was $10,000. We actually expect to come in at less than half that amount.
Like any other meeting and per the Texas Open Meetings Act, an official agenda was created and posted to the board outside city hall and the city website. It will also be posted at the hotel in a prominent place. The public is welcome to attend the meetings and there is space for them to attend, as we will be in a conference room at the hotel where others can join us if they so choose. The workshop will be audio recorded as part of the record.
As we have begun planning this over the last few months, staff has been very open about the process, making every attempt to be careful stewards of taxpayer dollars while creating an environment we feel is most conducive to accomplishing the objectives of the workshop. This is a work session to get everyone on the same page about budget priorities and goal setting.