Alpine, City Officials, Fighting For Free Speech Outside City Hall

By Wyatt Goolsby
NewsWest 9

ALPINE - A Texas law is stirring up trouble across the state. Four cities and more than a dozen Texas council members are suing the state in federal court. They say as soon as they're sworn into office, they lose their First Amendment rights. On Thursday, NewsWest 9 learned how Alpine is leading the fight to change what they're calling unfair rules.

"Public officials across the state are afraid to talk at all, except at a meeting, because they are afraid of going to jail," Alpine City Attorney Rod Ponton said.

It's a law meant to open up city councils across Texas to the public. Over the decades, the Texas Open Meetings Act has prevented back-hand dealings outside of the public eye. The state law allows for open and closed meetings, as well as setting the rule to keeping city council agendas always available. However for some in Alpine, the Texas Open Meetings Act is an imperfect system with restrictions too tight on what city council members can say about public issues outside of City Hall.

"A law that puts you in jail just for talking is censorship pure and simple," Ponton explained.

Ponton said Alpine city officials are spearheading the lawsuit against the Texas Attorney General's Office. Ponton said the problem is Texas city council members getting fined or receiving jail time for talking about city issues in a quorum. As it stands, if a quorum of council members meet in person, email, Facebook, Twitter, or send any other messages about city issues outside of an official meeting, they're in violation.

"We live in the town of Alpine, small town. You go down to the coffee shop and you see the mayor, and you're a city council member. You can't talk to him. You can't ask him what's going on in Alpine today," Ponton said.

Ponton said the issue is simply First Amendment rights. So far, four cities including Alpine, Pflugerville, Rockport, and Wichita Falls are all suing. Not to mention 15 council members across the state are also plaintiffs. In response to the lawsuit, Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying cities are "creatures of the state" that do not have first amendment rights.

"Corporations have first amendment rights. The corporations can be protected under the First Amendment, and what's a city?" Ponton asked. "It's a municipal corporation representing the interest of it's citizens through elected representatives."

For some, facing the penalty of the open meetings act is too much. Former Alpine city councilman Avinash Rangra was one of two indicted in 2005 for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by sending an email to other city council members about setting up a meeting with a contractor.

"How can you, in a country like ours, indict people just for talking to each other via emailing?" Rangra asked.

Ultimately, the case against Rangra was dismissed, but not before a federal appeals court sided with Rangra affirming his first amendment rights. Today, he supports the city's lawsuit.  Some Alpine residents said Rangra's case will help the city in the lawsuit.

"The gist of that, what Dr. Rangra did where he got the three judge panel to look at this, and they said no you need to apply the strictest possible scrutiny, because you are messing with people's constitutional rights. I think that's probably going to be a springboard for the new case," Pete Smyke, who supports the city's lawsuit, explained.

For all those who do support the current lawsuit, the message is clear: open government is great. It's the system that needs to change.

"Am I against making deals? Yes. I'm against making deals. I think we have a job, we are trusted by the public to do certain things, and we are to do them in open," Rangra added.

No trial date has been set, but the lawsuit has be brought forward in Judge Robert Junell's District Court in Pecos. Ponton told NewsWest 9, the city expects to hear some feedback in the next 30 to 60 days.