Beginning in September, Amarillo City Council meetings will start so early that they’ll have to unlock city hall before its usual time.
If the plan informally approved by the council last week takes effect, the 7 a.m. sessions would be the earliest among Texas cities over 150,000 population, based on a review of those cities’ council agendas. The closest is 9 a.m., the hour when meetings are called to order in the state’s largest three cities of San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.
Council members in Amarillo, population 200,000, discussed the plan as a cost-cutting measure during a work session last week.
“We’re being efficient with the budget as we look at staff present at council meetings,” City Manager Jared Miller told council members in pitching the plan, naming overtime pay for support staff as a driving factor in the idea.
Miller acknowledged that most employees who work the meetings are exempt from overtime, although he didn’t provide a breakdown. Regular council sessions have started at 5 p.m. for the last two years.
Noting the 18 staffers present at the work session, Miller said they have to be there to keep abreast of issues that are discussed in public session. The sessions are taped and broadcast via the Internet.
“The only way for them to get the context of the issues is to hear it in the meeting,” said Miller, who did not respond to an email requesting further comment.
At the work session, he pointed out that councils of medium-sized cities tend to meet in the evening, making for a long day for someone who gets to work at 8 a.m.
Miller said that with the 7 a.m. start, the workday would not be as long.
James Schenck, a local political gadfly and unsuccessful city council candidate, accused city officials of changing the meeting time to thwart a growing opposition to the status quo.
“This is a way to keep [dissenters] out,” he said.
Schenck has been faithfully attending meetings for the last decade, he said, but that might end with a 7 a.m. start time — which he suggested may be what the council wants.
“The reality is that you’d have to get up at 5:30 to get ready. I’d say that kind of start will deter people from going, much less speaking.”
Several incidents in recent months during the council’s public comment period have raised some eyebrows, including a situation in April when a group of citizens accused Mayor Ginger Nelson of violating the state’s open meetings law via her mandate that no clapping be allowed at council sessions.
The city is also the target of a lawsuit filed by two citizens who claim, among other things, that Nelson violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by advising attendees at a March meeting that using phone cameras to take photos or video of the meeting “is against the policy we have here … .” (VIDEO HERE START AT 1:22:00)
The ensuing bad publicity changed things in a hurry, Schenck said, and clapping and videos are now permitted again.
All other Texas cities in Amarillo’s population range have evening start times for council meetings, allowing members of the public to get off work in time to attend at least part of the session.
County commissioners courts, in which there is less public interest, traditionally meet in the morning. School boards, except in the largest cities, meet almost exclusively in the evening.
The move to 7 a.m. is both “legal and undemocratic,” said Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney who works on open meetings issues.
“I have never heard of a city council meeting at 7 a.m.,” he said. “Not even a legislative committee does that.”
During last week’s work session, the council — four members and Nelson as a voting mayor — also discussed the new time as a way to allow city employees to have more time with their families in the evenings.
The Amarillo council meets weekly, more often than the governing bodies of similarly sized cities. That’s unnecessary, said former city council member Mark Nair.
Meeting every other week “is plenty,” said Nair, who served one term, from 2015 to 2017. “What we would do if we had a long meeting into the night is let staffers come in at noon the next day.”
Regular council sessions were set for 3 p.m. in 2015, and the schedule was changed to a 6 p.m. start, then 5 p.m. during his tenure.
“But we never discussed moving it to 7 a.m.,” he said. “We wanted to make things more open, not less.”
Nelson is behind the push for the early meeting time, Nair said, noting the controversy generated from the recent public comment sessions.
“You can see a path of what this council is trying to do, and that’s to limit accessibility,” he said.
One of Nelson’s campaign promises was “communication and participation.” She did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]