The new meeting schedule was proposed at a council work session in September. According to Mayor Mattie Parker, it is 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 and often making their comments late at night. Regular meetings will now be on a separate week, with city council work sessions and public comment meetings convening on the same day.
Not all citizens like the new format. Bob Willoughby, a regular participant in public comments at city council meetings, believes the change is for the convenience of the city council.
“It’s all about them and their convenience,” Willoughby said, adding that moving the time up to 6 p.m. from 7 p.m. makes it harder for many to arrive after work.
He believes that more people tune in to hear the regular city council meeting where important zoning cases and other matters are being discussed. “If the public presentations were on at that time, at the beginning of the meeting, more people would see it,” he offered.
“They have put us in quarantine,” he emphasized, saying he believes the change in time and schedule is to try to keep people from being involved.
But Parker says participation has remained about the same as it was before.
“Before the schedule change, we saw about an average of seven people per public presentation block, and we’re seeing about the same since,” Parker told The Texan in an email reply.
“Of course, the number of speakers will ebb and flow depending on if there is a hot topic. In addition to the public presentation meetings twice a month, we are still seeing many speakers participate in public comments on agenda items at City Council meetings,” she added.
Speakers may still sign up at regular council meetings to speak about items on that meeting’s agenda.
Parker also believes that city council members may be more attentive under the new meeting format. “A great feature of the new system is that public presentations aren’t at the end of hours of meetings. You now have Councilmembers with fresh minds at those meetings dedicated to public presentation, truly focusing on the items presented by constituents,” she said.
Willoughby has lived in Fort Worth for most of his life and got involved about 10 years ago in city council issues after some concerns he had in dealing with code compliance.
At the first public comment meeting in November, Willoughby played a video and made some remarks alleging corruption by council members and criticizing city employees. Parker, who has a law degree from Texas Wesleyan University Law School, which became Texas A&M University School of Law, cut him off and told him he could not make “personal attacks” during his public comments.
Then the city attorney sent Willoughby a letter two days later telling him his comments “meet the definition of libel and could be actionable in a court of law.”
Public interest law attorney and Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas volunteer Bill Aleshire disagrees with the city attorney.
“Mr. Willoughby stated his opinion that actions and non-responsiveness of City officials were corrupt, in the sense that he thinks they are not doing their duty. That is, simply put, free speech,” Aleshire wrote in reply to The Texan. “In our democratic republic, voters have every right to be rude to public servants, justified or not, and we expect public servants to understand they are not some sort of royalty sitting on thrones.”
Furthermore, Aleshire believes the letter sent to Willoughby is “an abuse of power.” He said that Willoughby’s comments are protected under the Texas Constitution, Article I, section 27, and under the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) section 551.007, passed in 2019.
“I believe the City Council cannot punish or prohibit speech that is ‘absolutely privileged’—even if defamatory — during Council meetings on topics over which the Council has authority to investigate and decide. In addition, the prohibition against such criticism of the Council members violates TOMA section 551.007,” Aleshire explained.
Aleshire has received several calls about issues like these from across the state. Last summer, two North Texas school districts implemented rules restricting comments that were critical of the board of trustees.
Aleshire said that the legislature passed a bill amending TOMA in 2019 that requires public testimony must be allowed on agenda items. However, since then, some governmental bodies have removed opportunities for public comment if not about an agenda item.
“It shows how hard it is to legislate respect for people in government,” he said, adding that transparency is needed, but can’t be forced on those who don’t understand its importance.
Alesshire argued that if local governments allow compliments of staff and officials but won’t allow criticism, that is likely a content-based restriction on speech and unconstitutional.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
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.