13th Court of Appeals holds City sufficiently complied with TOMA and Tax Code in 2019 when it adopted its annual tax rate

Leftwich v City of Harlingen, 13-20-00110-CV (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi, Sep. 9, 2021).

This is a declaratory judgment suit to declare the city violated procedural requirements when it adopted its tax rate in 2019. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals held no alleged violation constituted a waiver of the City’s immunity.

Leftwich alleges the City violated several statutory requirements in 2019 when it adopted its tax rate, including (1) the published notice failed to conform to the “date, time[,] and location” requirements of Texas Local Government Code § 140.010(c),  (2) the City failed to meet the deadline to adopt the tax rate (requiring a vote on proposed tax rate “not be earlier than the third day or later than the [fourteenth] day after the date of the second public hearing”); (3) the City violated TOMA by not allowing public comment “before or during” the consideration of the of the tax ordinances and various other procedural deficiencies. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted. Leftwich appealed.

The court first noted that TOMA’s waiver of sovereign immunity only extends to mandamus or injunctive relief for actual or threatened violations of TOMA, not to suits for declaratory relief.  Further, under TOMA, substantial compliance is sufficient. The location of a meeting may be sufficient without including the full street address, name of the city, or meeting room, so long as the notice sufficiently apprises the public of the location.  Here, the term “town hall” sufficiently put the public on notice of the location of the meeting. No general waiver of immunity exists under the UDJA.  Plaintiff sought a judgment “declaring that the[o]rdinances are invalid and void ab initio” due to appellees’ alleged TOMA and tax code violations. The alleged TOMA violation during the meeting focused on the City Council not taking public comments before voting on the first reading of the tax ordinance. However, the mayor was clearly heard on camera, prior to the final vote on the first reading of each ordinance, asking for discussion, to which no one responded. Assuming, arguendo, that the mayor’s call for discussion was not clearly directed to the public, Leftwich would remain unsuccessful as that was only the first reading. The ordinance was not adopted until the second reading. Only an action taken in violation of TOMA is voidable.  Under the tax code, no requirement exists that two publications exist for public hearings, only that two public hearings are held and that notice is published. Under § 26.06(e) of the Texas Tax Code, the City was required to hold a meeting to vote on the tax ordinances not “earlier than the third day or later than the [fourteenth] day after the date of the second public hearing.” However § 26.06(e) provides no authority for a court to enjoin the collection of taxes for failure to comply with § 26.06(e), which is what Plaintiff seeks.  Plaintiff further asserts the councilmember making the motion failed to follow the specific quoted language for the motion contained within the statute. However, after reviewing the record, the court concluded the motion followed the important parts of the statutory language, verbatim.  Leftwich next asserted the City failed to properly post the necessary tax information on the City’s website.  However, Leftwich failed to present evidence that would raise a fact issue as to whether the City previously posted the notice to the website. The court concluded the undisputed language which was present meets the requirements of Texas Tax Code § 26.05(b)(2), which requires the notice be published after the ordinance is adopted. Leftwich failed to allege jurisdiction under TOMA or the Tax Code for any alleged violation.  Finally, while Plaintiff attempts to bring a First Amendment claim, he failed to brief the claim and therefore waived it.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Justices Benavides, Hinojosa and Silva. Memorandum opinion by Justice Silva.