The Amarillo City Council took another tack this week in what detractors believe is an ongoing campaign to muffle public voices at its meetings.
In recent months, Mayor Ginger Nelson has sought, unsuccessfully, to prohibit photographing or videoing council meetings. She tried to ban clapping. Then the council decided to begin its weekly meetings at 7 a.m. Public outcry convinced them to abandon that idea last week.
Instead, the council opted to separate the weekly public comment session from the council’s regular meeting. The public comment session will begin at noon and the council work session starts at 1, leading into the regular meeting. And the city will no longer videotape the public comment section for public broadcast, as is done for regular meetings.
City officials made no bones about the reasons for the decision not to broadcast the comments.
“There have been a lot of personal attacks, disparaging comments, ahh, inaccuracies … recently and since accurate communication and communication in general is one of the council’s pillars, and for these reasons, we are not going to be broadcasting public comment,” City Manager Jared Miller told a small gathering in the council chambers this week, just before the first separate public comments session.
That didn’t stop citizens who are concerned about the direction of the council’s recent actions. A group of them have set up a Facebook page where they will post their own videos of the public comments session each week.
In recent months, during the public comment sections of regular meetings, citizens have aired complaints about euthanizing pets, alleged disregard of the plight of the homeless, and, repeatedly, the mayor. She didn’t show up for this week’s initial separate public comments session.
Nelson is also the target of a lawsuit for alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act over her attempt to halt the taking of photos during public sessions.
The city manager, in his comments at the beginning of the open-mic session, said there is no requirement that such sessions be broadcast. “In fact it’s not required to take place,” he said.
Eliminating the video broadcast of the public comment session is “a terrible idea,” said Mark Nair, a former city council member, who served one term before the election of the current council in May 2017. “The reason we have problems at the national level is things like this, that manifest themselves at the local level. “
Without allowing some venting from the public as part of the overall presentation of the publicly released agenda, Nair said, “the meeting isn’t really a full meeting. That is, the reason you have a public meeting is to redress the government.”
He added that the council and its detractors both have their points. More restrained critics of the council have been drowned out by some of the loudest among their ranks, he said, and the city is responding with a move that empowers the louder ones, some of them petty critics who have been made into free speech martyrs.
“But that’s a blurred line, as some of the people who are chronic complainers started out as occasional visitors to the public comments,” said Rusty Donelson, a retired farmer who attends the meetings. “Someone starts with a primary problem of some sort, a pothole or such, and gets ignored by city hall and keeps coming back. Then the city doubles down on that, and this is how we get to where we are.”
Neither the mayor nor council members responded to emails from The Texas Monitor requesting comments or interviews for this story. Miller, the city manager, declined an interview request.
Governmental bodies are not required to allow public comment, but those comments “have been an integral part of public meetings since well before the adoption of the Open Meetings Act in 1967,” according to a 2000 Texas attorney general’s opinion. That opinion also notes that if a government body is given advance notice that a group of citizens are seeking discussion of defined issue, it must make note of that in its public notice of the meeting.
“Without a recording, it’s difficult for people to challenge what happened during that part of the meeting,” said Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Illinois, which advocates for citizens engaged with their governments. “Those comments are being made on the record in an official public setting by civically engaged people. You don’t get to choose who you want to be civically engaged.”
Most cities the size of Amarillo and larger routinely include agenda items for public comment as part of their city council sessions. In Arlington, where meetings are broken into afternoon and evening segments, citizens speak during the evening portion. In Corpus Christi, residents are invited to use multimedia material such as DVDs or slides if needed during their addresses.
In Amarillo, there was no public discussion last week before the decision was announced that public comments would not be recorded.
Council member Freda Powell said during the Aug. 28 meeting that she was concerned about people being able to see the meetings.
“We just need to make sure [the public comment section] is structured so that those who want to come and stand before us, they need that opportunity to do that,” Powell said. “Some want to look us in the eye and make eye contact with us.”
Mayor Nelson added that such contact is “important.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].