Last Saturday’s Hewitt City Council runoff election between Mike Field, a 74-year-old retired attorney formerly of the Brazos River Authority, and Michael Bancale, a 56-year-old Texas Farm Bureau systems administrator — both exceptional candidates — catapulted Bancale onto the council. It was solid proof after four sets of elections since November that Hewitt residents have had quite enough of tone-deaf incumbents who regularly fail community standards of accountability and transparency.
With Bancale now joining Erica Bruce, Charlie Turner, Matthew Mevis, Steve Fortenberry and Bill Fuller on the council, we can be confident of several things. Among them: an end to the devious and deceptive practice of “walking quorums,” a clear violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Evidence was strong that the former mayor and certain members of the previous council communicated about city business beyond the legally prescribed public venue where such discussions are supposed to happen.
And while the prospect of prosecuting this public wrong sputtered after a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling neutered a key part of the act, we praise the Legislature for promptly patching what justices claimed was ambiguity in the law. On behalf of the watchdog press and a taxpaying public that yearns to perform its role as informed citizenry, we thank Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for signing this into law. To quote Abbott, “The ‘walking quorum’ loophole in the Texas Open Meetings Act is now closed.”
Granted, we disagree with Gov. Abbott and the Legislature in their strategy of undercutting that government which is closest to the people — city councils, county commissioner courts and school boards among them — but we agree wholeheartedly on the importance of governmental entities taking steps to be more straightforward and transparent. As the Trib noted through its investigative reporting in 2018 and 2019, that clearly was not happening at Hewitt City Hall.
This was a terrific legislative session for public transparency, much of it thanks to Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, a Baylor University alumnus long vigilant in protecting press freedoms and public access to government. He and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, collaborated to pass Senate Bill 943, invigorating the Texas Public Information Act following Texas Supreme Court rulings in 2015 that threatened public access to how taxpayer money is spent. They helped pass SB 944, which streamlines access to public records in government officials’ private cell phones and email accounts. And Watson and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, worked on the “walking quorum” legislation. All three state legislators representing McLennan County supported these bills.
So our congratulations to the victors in Hewitt City Council elections. Whatever struggles its members may face in coming months with taxes, state government intrusion and improving public perception of local government, let them remember how quickly things can go south when the taxpaying public is shut out of the equation. In that regard, state leaders correctly show the way through demands for greater transparency in government’s service to the people.