Public comment

Denton resident Linnie McAdams, center, speaks to City Council at City Hall in April. Under a new state law, now in effect, the audience is allowed to comment on agenda items as they occur.

DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

The Watchdog loves it when folks get involved in their government by becoming fellow watchdogs and keeping a sharp eye on their leaders’ doings. I need the help.

That’s why I’m pleased to tell you about a new state law that will change the face of all local governments in Texas.

This new law has gotten very little attention, but it’s quite significant, even stunning.

Meet House Bill 2840, which became law Sept. 1.

Simply, the law requires all government meetings (city councils, county commissions, school boards, hospital districts, public colleges) to open up their meeting to public comments in a much bigger way.

Now most governments schedule a “Persons to be Heard” segment, where you sign up to speak at the beginning or, worse, at the tail end.

Some governments across the state don’t even allow members of the public to speak at all.

Until now, allowing the public to speak was not mandatory under law. Now it is.

Under the new law, a person can speak to a government body at the start of the meeting, at the end, and most important, before a vote on every listed agenda item.

This is unheard of. Previously, most governments allowed comments at some point, but only rarely did leaders let the public speak on individual agenda items during their deliberations. Usually, they only allowed such comments when public hearings are required by law.

This is huge. If you want to talk on Items 1, 4, 6 and 9 on the agenda, just raise your hand. Governments can’t stop you.

Well, if they do, they are in violation of the new law.

Even better, the law makes it clear that governments cannot block criticism by their constituents. More on that later.

Greater participation equals greater democracy

Sure, this is going to lengthen meetings. This also gives government gadflies the chance to poke their heads into every agenda item, if so inclined.

But what this really does is weaken the authoritarian style of government we have now where constituents can speak but may not participate in actual discussions.

As The Watchdog, I’m hoping this turns Texas governments more toward a New England-style town hall meeting. Greater participation means greater democracy.

Frankly, I’m surprised this bill made it through the Legislature without school boards, county commissioners and city councils raising cane.

But they didn’t. This one appears to have fallen through the cracks.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

No more restrictions

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. The lawyer and South Texas lawmaker was in a trial last week and unavailable to talk to me.

But his chief of staff, Curtis Smith, explained, “The public should have an opportunity to comment before a motion is passed.”

The Monitor newspaper in McAllen editorialized about the bill last week, saying that the new law was needed because some government leaders restrict access to public comments during open meetings or constantly “change the comment periods in efforts to avoid certain speakers or certain issues.”

TV time

Under a 2-year-old law I studied previously, all public meetings of governments in larger counties must videotape their meetings and post them online.

With this new law, that promises to give members of the public not only a chance to influence their elected leaders, but also to pass their viewpoint into the community through free media.

That, too, is a big deal.

School boards notified

The Texas Association of School Boards notified its members that “opportunities for public comment on agenda items will be required for every board meeting, not just regular meetings, and includes special-called meetings and workshops.”

One school district in Killeen announced it won’t hold board workshops anymore, just regular meetings to comply, kdhnews.com reports.

Allowing citizen participation at workshops (informal planning meetings) is not a common occurrence. Now it’s required.

The new law also makes it illegal to play the old trick of putting “Persons to be Heard” at the tail end of a meeting. That forced would-be speakers to wait, often enough, late into the evening. It was too much of a hassle, and the item in question usually had already been voted on.

Time limits allowed

A couple of important points: If a non-English speaker appears before a board with a translator, the speaker is given twice as much time to speak.

How much time should citizens be allowed to speak? Boards are supposed to set time limits. If you dislike something your board is about to vote on, you ought to be able to comment in one or two minutes.

Boards will also set up the rules for how one speaks: A sign-up sheet, raising your hand, etc.

Rockwall rep votes no

Only three members of the entire Legislature voted against the bill.

One is state Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall. I called his office to ask why. Never heard back.

Aside from the government bodies I listed who must follow these rules, a few others are included, too.

A nonprofit corporation eligible to receive funds under the federal community services block grant program must follow the law.

So, too, must “a nonprofit corporation that provided a water supply, wastewater service or both.”

Can’t stop critics

One more part of this bill I adore.

“A government body may not prohibit public criticism of the government body, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program or service.”

Double wow. Amazing this must be placed into state law, but here it is.

HB 2840 is a license to speak up, talk more, get involved and be a better watchdog.

Well done, Rep. Canales.

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