Williamson County Commissioner’s Court flouts changes to Open Meetings Act at first meeting, 09-17-2019, after new section goes into affect on 09-01-2019

Williamson County Commissioners Court flouted recent changes to the Texas Open Meetings Act intended to guarantee citizens a voice at government meetings. Commissioners gave each of 9 speakers 1 minute to speak.

Sec. 551.007 hasn’t yet been added to the Government Code kept online for the public, but here we have it for you:

My favorite part is sub-section (e) which begins, “A governmental body may not prohibit public criticism of the governmental body, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program, or service.”. WOW! We can finally get to speak without being shot down as disrespectful. Except, we don’t and you will see here in a bit.

You can see that it also starts out quite excellent! It says “shall allow each member of the public who desires to address the body”. Then it gives some wiggle room, “regarding an item on the agenda”. UGH!!!!! On one hand, the law is great in that it forces government to hear us. On the other hand, it forces government to hear us ONLY on topics government wishes to discuss! I’ve heard that Guerra Canales is a decent person, so I truly hope that sub-section (c) wasn’t their idea.

(c) A governmental body may adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body under this section, including rules that limit the total amount of time that a member of the public may address the body on a given item.

Section 551.007(c). Emphasis added.

Here, is a problem I’m sure you all immediately see and one you don’t see.

If we are having to pass a law reinforcing citizen’s Constitutional right to address government, why then are we leaving interpretation of that law up to the reason of those who were previously denying it? It makes NO SENSE. The legislature gave us a little bit of help, then hung us out to dry. Our only recourse is to sue the governmental body in court. That’s not a practical path for most of us due to money. Even those with money haven’t found a welcome ear in Texas Courts.

Courthouse News Service

So, yeah. Today’s problem should have been SUPER predictable.

I said there were 2 problems. The second, not so obvious problem is that 551.007 did not address the right of the public speak concerning items NOT on the agenda. This affectively means that it can be argued that the legislature intended that citizens do NOT have a right to address government on topics government doesn’t wish to discuss. That’s what we saw here. We all agree – 1 minute is an unreasonable amount of time. That doesn’t matter, because Williamson County Commissioners saw the hole in the law and drove right through it.

By Design

Judge Gravell gets to choose who will and will NOT be heard.

On August 27, 2019, The Williamson County Commissioner’s Court signed a new version of their Williamson County Commissioners Court’s Rules of Procedure, Conduct, and Decorum. The item was number 50 out of 66 total items. The Court decided to limit public input regarding matters not on the agenda to 10 minutes total.

The types of public comments which are off agenda are usually NOT matters the Commissioners wish to hear about. Another way of saying this is the people use that time to *petition* their government. I’ve heard about this somewhere before.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

AMENDMENT I – US Constitution

Judge Gravell still gets to pick the order of speakers and therefore gets to decide who will and will not be heard. But hey… you still have the right to send an email.

From 2019.08.27 order signed by all commissioners

Items on the agenda are in a similar mess. The Commissioners Court believes that they may limit discussion per item to 30 minutes qualifies as “reasonable”. Giving 60 people 10 seconds to comment is not a reasonable rule.

Texas Legislature’s Analysis of HB 2840

ANALYSIS
 
H.B. 2840 amends the Government Code to require certain specified local governmental bodies to allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding any of its open meeting agenda items to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item. The bill authorizes such a governmental body to adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body and requires a rule that limits the amount of time that a member of the public may address the body to provide that a member who addresses the body through a translator must be given at least twice the amount of time as a member who does not require a translator, provided that the body does not use simultaneous translation equipment in a certain manner. The bill prohibits an applicable governmental body from prohibiting public criticism of the body, except for criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law.

BILL ANALYSIS – H.B. 2840
By: Canales
County Affairs
Committee Report (Unamended)

SECTION BY SECTION ANALYSIS
 
SECTION 1. Amends Subchapter A, Chapter 551, Government Code, by adding Section 551.007, as follows:
 
Sec. 551.007. PUBLIC TESTIMONY. (a) Provides that this section applies only to a governmental body described by Sections 551.001(3)(B)-(L) (relating to certain entities included in the definition of “governmental body”).
 
(b) Requires a governmental body to allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda for an open meeting of the body to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item.
 
(c) Provides that a governmental body to adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body under this section, including rules that limit the total amount of time that a member of the public may address the body on a given item.
 
(d) Provides that this subsection applies only if a governmental body does not use simultaneous translation equipment in a manner that allows the body to hear the translated public testimony simultaneously. Provides that a rule adopted under Subsection (c) that limits the amount of time that a member of the public may address the governmental body is required to provide that a member of the public who addresses the body through a translator is required to be given at least twice the amount of time as a member of the public who does not require the assistance of a translator in order to ensure that non-English speakers receive the same opportunity to address the body.
 
(e) Prohibits a governmental body from prohibiting public criticism of the governmental body, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program, or service. Provides that this subsection does not apply to public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law.
 
SECTION 2. Effective date: September 1, 2019.

H.B. 2840
86R15395 TJB-D
By: Canales et al. (Hughes)
Business & Commerce
5/15/2019
Engrossed