in Houston, Texas
TWIA relents, opens up teleconference meeting to reporter -- after some prodding
Wednesday, Jan 19, 2011, 06:15PM CST
By Steve Miller
Keep out sign

A board meeting for the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association was held today, and if we hadn't made a fuss about getting access to it, we probably wouldn't have gotten to listen in on what happened.

TWIA, of course, is the state agency that offers insurance to homeowners in coastal areas who aren't able to get private firms to insure their houses due to the risks of hurricanes. 

We heard about today's meeting while talking to a source yesterday. But when we checked TWIA's Web site for the specifics -- time, date, place -- we couldn't find those anywhere on the site.

Turns out TWIA had posted those specifics and the meeting agenda on the open meetings section of the Texas Secretary of State's Web site. (It's legally required to post such notices on the SOS site, but would a mention on TWIA's own Web site be too much to ask?)

The notice said the meeting was to be a teleconference, which made things much easier for us, as we're in Houston, and TWIA is based in Austin. 

In an email, we asked for the conference call-in and code number so we could listen in. The response was this:

Here's the situation: when we posted the board meeting teleconference call as (an) open meeting, we did not provide a call-in number. It's too late to post a call-in number, so we can't provide it to one person and not to another.

The only people that will be using the call-in number are our board members. However, we would be pleased to have you come to the meeting. Our address is:

 5700 S. MoPac Expressway

Building E

Austin, Texas 78749

Thank you, and we hope to see you in the morning.

In other words, we can’t accommodate you, but feel free to drive 167 miles to see the meeting live and in person. This is not the way the public should be greeted.

We consulted the state attorney general's open meetings guide for rules regarding teleconference meetings and found the AG's summary of the rules:

A meeting of a governing body may be held by teleconference call only if:

1. An emergency or public necessity exists; and 2. It is difficult or impossible to convene a quorum at one location.

Again, we went back to TWIA and asked what the emergency was. The agency came back with this -- specially passed legislation allowing the TWIA board to meet via teleconference. Fair enough -- these exceptions are granted for agencies on an individual basis with regard to both meetings and records. Current law comes from a 2009 bill that was authored by state Rep. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who recently won a battle for the records of TWIA regarding a $189 million Hurricane Ike settlement with homeowners.

The current bill updated 2005 legislation regarding TWIA and teleconferencing that mostly followed the Texas Government Code dictates and said the board could meet by teleconference only “if immediate action is required and convening of a quorum of the board at a single location is not reasonable or practical.” As it stands with Taylor's bill, the 9-member board can meet via phone at any time, provided the other regulations of the Texas Government Code are met.

We called TWIA early this morning and said we were going to write a story about the agency's refusal to allow us access to the teleconference via a shared conference call code. Within 30 minutes, we received a call providing us with the same toll-free number and code that the board members had been given. 

"They had given out the number already so we can give it to you," said Meg Meo, a representative of Elizabeth Christian & Associates public relations, an Austin firm that has been retained by TWIA.

The move was the right one and shows the agency is interested in transparency, said Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer and a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

So, we got our way. We taped the 23-minute meeting and will review it.

But what about anyone else who wanted access to this public meeting? They may not be empowered, or they might not have the time, to pursue this. This is our job, after all. 

Contact Steve Miller at stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo by flickr user bradleygee, used under a Creative Commons license.

Comments
wondering
Tuesday, 01/25/2011 - 06:49AM

So what happened at this meeting?

Lee Ann O'Neal
Wednesday, 01/26/2011 - 09:50AM

Dear wondering, good question! The board went through some housekeeping items, but did not make any decisions and in general delayed discussion to a later time. The meeting lasted about 20 minutes.

Thanks for reading and writing in,

Lee Ann O'Neal, deputy editor

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