Perfecting the art of not listening: Citizen comment isn’t on the agenda in Mercedes

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When city leaders don’t want to hear what their public has to say, they can just walk away. That’s what happened in Mercedes last week when the city manager and two city commission members appeared to walk away while a member of the public pleaded with them to consider a new street light in the town of 16,000.

The meeting had been adjourned when Lauren Pitts began to speak — because the Mercedes council has quit including a public comment session in their meeting. Commission members were gathering their papers as she continued to talk, and a YouTube video shows City Attorney Juan Molina motioning City Manager Sergio Zavala and commissioners Howard Wade and Leo Villarreal toward the door.

Pitts was one of several community members who were at the meeting to speak about issues surrounding the death of David Gobellan, 19, who was riding his bike on a darkened thoroughfare in Mercedes earlier this month when he was struck by a motorist.

In the wake of the accident, community members have questioned city engineering and told reporters that perhaps a street light might have prevented the accident.

Zavala said in an email that if the commissioners had stayed last week to listen to Pitts, “then the commission would be subject to criminal charges because they’d be having an illegal meeting, i.e., not posted on any agenda.”

He added that “there seems to be a perception from a faction in Mercedes that because there is no ‘open forum’ on the CC agenda, that we’ve closed the doors to input or questions which is actually the opposite extreme, i.e., citizens can send in their comments 24/7 and not have to wait for 10-15 mins every 2 weeks.”

This week, Pitts was given a spot on the agenda to provide her input and did so without incident.

City Attorney Molina declined to comment.

The city commission in January ended the public comment section of its meetings, contending that providing a way to submit comments via the city website is sufficient.

Mercedes Mayor Henry Hinojosa told the Brownsville Herald that the public comment decision would “stay the way it is.”

“We never got rid of it, we just perfected it,” he told the paper, referring to an added feature allowing residents to submit complaints on the city’s website.

Texas law does not require governmental bodies to include a comment session in their meetings, but many do as a courtesy and because many citizens use the sessions to express concerns and opinions on topics not covered by official agendas.

It’s unknown how many municipalities have public comment sessions, although a Texas Monitor review of city council agendas shows all cities with a population of over 200,000 build in comment sections.

The five most populated counties in the state also carve out time for public comment.

The city of Amarillo has grappled with the public comment section of its city council meetings, finally opting to hold it in a session separate from the rest of the agenda and not including it in the video broadcast of the meeting.

Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson, who has been the target of ire in several public comment sessions, was not present for at least the first two public comment sessions under the new plan.

Some municipalities have more patience than others for citizen input, and some “citizen input” is more obnoxious than the usual. In Corpus Christi, a local resident dumped a bag of cockroaches on the interim city manager during the comment session and later came to speak to the council dressed as a cockroach.

The Corpus Christi council continues to set aside time during its meetings for public comment. It also records and broadcasts the comments.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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