This week, it held a public hearing about new rules for citizens to present public comments related to items on the agenda.
Under the proposal, citizens can sign up to speak for a total of three minutes concerning any number of items on the consent agenda. Likewise, citizens can also sign up to speak for a total of three minutes on any number of non-consent agenda items.
In the past, persons have been given three minutes for each non-consent agenda item about which they sign up to speak, with no limit on the number of items.
Items treated differently are zoning cases and public hearings. Those will still be treated as before, allowing citizens to speak for three minutes on each.
The mayor, who chairs the meeting, is given the discretion to increase or decrease any speaker time limit.
Attorney Bill Aleshire, who specializes in open government legal matters, told The Texan in an email that the discretion granted to the mayor to adjust the time may create legal issues.
“It’s good to have some flexibility to promote input to the council, but the chair should be very careful not to show favoritism to one point of view versus another,” he wrote. “That would violate Free Speech rights as a restriction based on the content of the speech.”
Furthermore, the mayor, city manager, or any member of the city council can request that an agenda item be separated out and speakers be given three minutes time on that item.
According to city attorney Leanne Guzman, the new rules are more generous than those in many other large Texas cities. A report by the city manager to the city council showed that Dallas allows three minutes per speaker on all items other than public hearings, with three minutes allowed per speaker on each public hearing agenda item.
Aleshire said that the time limitations work “an unfairness against individuals who are affected, especially if they are directly affected, by more than one agenda item.”
He added, “[A]n argument can be made that when a speaker has an interest in more than one agenda item, to deny that speaker time to speak to each item,” violates the Texas Open Meetings Act Section 551.007 “that entitles citizens to such testimony.”
Several residents raised concerns about and opposition to the new rules.
Former state representative Lon Burnam said he is angry and deeply disappointed in the city council for what he called “a degradation of citizen participation” that is “connected to the convenience of the city council.”
He suggested that they “spend a lot more time listening.”
Bishop Mark Kirkland, who often speaks at city council meetings, expressed his concerns by reminding the council members that “you people are not an entity within yourselves” and that they “have a duty to listen to citizens” they “claim to represent.”
Council member Chris Nettles, who represents District 8, replied to the concerns saying he’s been vocal in support of citizens having the right to speak and that he didn’t agree with this resolution nor the previous change.
He said he believes each citizen should be able to speak for three minutes on every agenda item if they wish. “You can barely speak for three minutes … and get your point across,” he acknowledged, adding that the rule change is “chipping away at rights.”
In November 2021, the city council changed the rules and meeting schedule so that citizens could comment about matters not on the agenda at meetings held twice a month, the first and third Tuesdays at 6 p.m.
According to Mayor Mattie Parker, the semimonthly format was a way to be “more efficient with our time, staff, and citizens.”
She believed that placing the public comment period at the end of regular agenda meetings kept citizens waiting, often until late at night to make their comments. Regular meetings are now on a separate week, with city council work sessions and public comment meetings convening on the same day.
The city council is planning to take a final vote on the new public comment rules at its meeting on September 27.
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.