October 17, 2007
Farmers Branch loses another one in court

We know that an injunction has been issued against the city of Farmers Branch, which prevents them from enforcing their ordinance requiring landlords to verify renters' immigration status. There were other lawsuits filed against that city related to that law, and last week the plaintiffs in one of those suits won a round in court.

A state appeals court has refused to throw out a lawsuit against Farmers Branch that says city officials violated open meetings laws by deciding behind closed doors the first version of an ordinance banning apartment landlords from renting to illegal immigrants.

The ruling issued late Friday by 5th District Court of Appeals Judge Molly Francis could pave the way for attorneys to start evidence discovery, which could force the city to divulge what was said in those closed-door discussions, said attorney William A. Brewer III. Mr. Brewer, of the Bickel & Brewer Storefront, represents the plaintiff in the lawsuit, Farmers Branch resident Guillermo Ramos.


Mr. Brewer said notes, transcripts and other documents from those executive sessions will reveal city officials were not only violating open meetings laws, but were "hostile toward Hispanics."

"This was all done in back channel and back room because the reasons for the decisions they were making is so outside the bounds of what I find appropriate," Mr. Brewer said.

In November, the City Council adopted Ordinance 2892. Shortly after, Mr. Ramos sued, alleging the council had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to properly notify residents about the planned ordinance, and deliberated and agreed on it in executive session.

The lawsuit also alleges the city did the same with an ordinance that set stricter property maintenance codes.

The council later repealed Ordinance 2982, then adopted Ordinance 2903. That ordinance largely mirrored the original one, essentially banning apartments from renting to most illegal immigrants.

Before Ordinance 2892 was approved, residents had no chance to view the text of the law and discuss it before the Council voted. Ordinance 2903 was posted on the city's Web site days in advance of the Council vote.

The city had asked the 116th District Court to toss out the lawsuit, primarily because Ordinance 2892 no longer existed. Judge Bruce Priddy declined, and the city filed an appeal. The city claimed the Mr. Ramos's suit failed to show sufficient facts to support its allegations and that the claims were moot because Ordinance 2892 had been repealed.

But in her ruling, Judge Francis rejected the city's arguments.

"If a governmental body illegally deliberates and decides an issue in a closed session, repealing the action so that it can be retaken in a later setting does not vindicate the very right protected by TOMA (Texas Open Meetings Act)," Judge Francis wrote.

Seems like a reasonable ruling to me. It's the act of having the meeting, not anything that was or wasn't done during that meeting, that TOMA is about. If this is the best Farmers Branch can do, I'd say they're going down. That likely means that they'll eat it on the other lawsuit by Mr. Ramos, which says they also violated Open Meeting laws on Ordinance 2903. Stay tuned.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 17, 2007 to National news