Pampa’s compliance with TOMA was satisfactory….

We can learn several important things about TOMA (Texas Open Meetings Act) from the recent decision of the Court of Appeals in Terrell v. Pampa ISD.

First: “substantial compliance with TOMA’s notice requirements is sufficient.”   You don’t have to do things perfectly.  The court stated that “Our primary purpose should be on whether the purposes of the statute were met by the governmental agency.”

On that basis the court concluded that Pampa complied with the law by identifying the location of the meeting as being at “Pampa High School.”  The plaintiff argued that this was not specific enough, but the court said that it was.  The court offered the friendly suggestion that “it would be helpful if the notices in this case had identified the specific room” where the meeting would be held, but TOMA only requires “substantial compliance” and this was substantially compliant. 

Next, the plaintiff alleged that there was inadequate proof of posting in timely fashion—the full 72 hours required by law.  Nope.  The superintendent’s secretary “testified that she always posts notices of school board meetings at least 72 hours before the meeting and has done so throughout her career.”  Furthermore, “the notice itself indicates that it was posted by 5:00 p.m. on March 23, 2009.” That was 72 hours before the meeting.  So between the language of the notice and the testimony of the secretary, there was adequate evidence to prove this point.

The plaintiff argued that the district did not post the notice “on a bulletin board at a place convenient to the public in the central administrative office building.”   The plaintiff was right about that.  The district did not post the notice on its bulletin board. Instead, it put it on the inside of a glass door to the building. That way, people could read it at any time during the 72 hours, even when the building was locked.  The court was OK with how the district did it.  Again, the court ruled in favor of the district on this point, while offering another helpful hint:

While it seems the more compliant approach would have been to simply post one copy of the notice to the front door and another to the bulletin board…we conclude that PISD’s postings of meeting notices to the front door of the central administrative office substantially complied with the requirements of TOMA.

That makes sense.  Consider: if the district only posted it on its bulletin board the plaintiff would have had a stronger argument.  The building would have been locked for most of the ensuing 72 hours. What good does that do?  So the district did what most districts do: put in on a glass door facing out.

The big issue in this case was the fact that the notice of the meeting had not been posted on the district’s website.  In fact, it turned out that there were 22 meetings over a period of several months that were not posted on the PISD website.  The plaintiff argued that everything that was done in all 22 meetings was void. Yikes! 

The court made note of the provision in the law that excuses compliance with this requirement if “the failure was due to a technical problem beyond the control of the school district.”  The court held that this is what happened here. The district had retained a new third-party vendor to create and maintain a new website.  That vendor “failed to recreate a hyperlink on the website” for the notices to be published. This went on for many months and 22 meetings, unbeknownst to anyone in the district. Guess who discovered the problem and pointed it out?  THE PLAINTIFF!  And the district then promptly corrected the problem. 

The court held that the district made the required “good faith” effort to get the notices on the website, and was thwarted by a “technical problem” beyond its control.

As usual in a TOMA case, there was a non-TOMA issue behind the scenes. The plaintiff’s probationary contract was terminated at the board meeting that the plaintiff complained about.  This case does not address the employment issue, but completely affirms the district’s compliance with TOMA. The case was decided by the Court of Appeals in Amarillo on January 9, 2019.  We found it at 2019 WL 150884.


Tomorrow: the judge thinks the law makes no sense.  Can you relate?