During the May meeting of the Odessa Economic Development Corporation (ODC), one of the most recent appointees to the board of directors that governs the city tax corporation raised concerns that a subcommittee that is heavily involved in reviewing public funding proposals may be operating illegally in violation of the Open Meetings Act (OMA). 

Odessa Headlines recently reported on an appointment vote to fill a vacancy on the ODC subcommittee, called the “compliance committee”, that was conducted by secret ballot in violation of the OMA. 

It was in the May 13 meeting that a new vote was taken to “cure” the illegal appointment of former city councilwoman Peggy Dean, that ODC board member Kris Crow raised concern that the compliance committee itself, may be operating in violation of open meetings requirements. 

Dean was appointed in a 4-3 public vote. 

According to city officials, the 10-person compliance committee routinely does the bulk of the work reviewing and negotiating economic incentive packages that it then submits to the ODC board for review. From there, the ODC board can either alter the proposal further, send it back to the compliance committee, or send the proposal up to the city council for approval.

Unlike the ODC board and city council, however, the compliance committee operates behind closed doors in total secrecy – with no public meetings, agendas, or minutes, and any four of the members constitutes a quorum necessary to put a proposal together. 

In raising his concerns with open meetings laws, Crow pointed to a handbook published by the Texas Attorney General’s Offices on OMA guidelines, citing what it says regarding committees that are exempt only when they do not control or supervise the public business and have the proposals routinely approved. 

“I think we can agree compliance has a lot of control over what ODC does as they come in and put together our packages even help negotiate what the offers are going to be and bring us the final package” Crow stated, adding further “If someone can make the argument that we routinely approve what they bring us they could be in violation of the OMA act.” 

ODC board member Melanie Hollman fired back at Crow, saying she disagrees with Crow’s assessment. 

“I don’t believe that there’s a good argument that we rubber-stamp what the compliance committee does, I don’t think that’s accurate at all. This body has regularly, and even with your prior term here with the board, changed or made a change to whatever compliance recommendation… or even negated what compliance recommended” Hollman said. 

Hollman went on to explain that one main reason compliance is exempt from the OMA is because they do not make any binding decisions. 

“The most important reason for them to do what they do is that companies that come to us are not interested in revealing their trade secret information and compliance can meet and keep that information private”, Hollman added. 

Crow responded by saying that sensitive information could be discussed in executive session, and further emphasized his point that this could be another end-run around the OMA. 

Board member Chris Cole then joined in the conversation, saying if Crow’s concerns are legal then they should have the city legal department review whether or not compliance is operating within the open meetings act, to which the entire board appeared to agree. 

Odessa Headlines spoke with an Austin-based attorney who is an expert in Open Meeting Act issues, who stated that when committee see their recommendations routinely approved by the board, they can become subject to the Open Meetings Act. 

A quick review of two years of meeting minutes for the Odessa City Council and the Odessa Economic Development Board failed to turn up evidence of when the last compliance committee recommendation was altered or rejected by the ODC board. 

Odessa Headlines will continue to review whether the board “routinely” approves, or “rubber stamps” the compliance committee’s recommendations and whether the committee is complying with state laws regarding open meetings.

Editor’s note:  It is the policy of Odessa Headlines that open government is the best form of government. While acknowledging the need for government to address a limited number of issues privately, issues regarding the public’s business should always be as open and accessible to the people as possible.

Matt Stringer is a journalist from Odessa, Texas.