Governments and citizens jostle over margins of new law on public comment

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Texans who want to talk about public business and public officials who want to limit that conversation continue to push back and forth to find just how a new law will affect that struggle. 

In Blanco County, a gadfly has his own interpretation of the law, which requires governments to allow residents to speak on issues that are going before a panel for a vote. 

At a recent commissioners court meeting, an individual appeared seeking to comment on 17 of the 21 items on the agenda, according to a letter seeking clarification on the law from Blanco County Attorney Deborah Earley to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. 

The man insisted that the law, which took effect Sept. 1, allows him to give his input on each item immediately before the board begins discussing it. 

When he was told that the public comments section at the beginning of the meeting, which allows residents three minutes each, was the only time he would be allowed to speak, he insisted that he be given three minutes for each agenda item he was interested in, giving him the floor for a total of 51 minutes. 

“Obviously, if ever[y] member of the public who wanted to speak got three minutes per item, the commissioners would not be able to have an effective meeting,” Earley wrote in her letter, seeking guidance from the AG’s office on the new statute. “It is the County’s position that the County can limit a speaker to a reasonable amount of time in total and not just per item.”

It’s likely that the position of Earley, who did not respond to a call or email, will be backed up by the AG’s office. 

The law “is not as expansive as some think or is being reported,” Curtis Smith, chief of staff for the bill’s author, Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, told The Texas Monitor earlier this month. 

The idea behind the measure was to require government bodies to allow public comments at their meetings. Before the bill passed, the question of allowing comments was up to the governmental body and some had shut off public comment, either on a case-by-case basis or across the board as policy or law, when locals agitated or when an issue became particularly controversial.

City council members in Pharr moved the public comment section of their meetings from the beginning to the end, effectively shutting out input during actual discussion of items being decided on.

Under the new law, the input must be heard before the body deliberates.

The law, though, can’t prevent actions like that taken by the Mercedes City Council last year, which shut down the public comment section of the agenda when residents showed up wanting to talk about the need for a new streetlight on a dangerous stretch of road. The reason: The streetlight question was not on the agenda. 

The public comments part of a governmental body’s agenda is now somewhat codified in law; comments must be allowed before the item is voted on, and the body still may put a time limit on that public input. 

“It’s a confusing situation and it always was,” Smith said. 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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