That number is symbolic of a tug of war going on in governments across the entire state of Texas.
How long should members of the public be allowed to speak at public meetings?
A state law that went into effect four months ago is forcing many cities, counties, school districts and other governments to update their rules about allowing people to speak at their meetings.
The new law requires governing boards to either allow members of the public to speak on scheduled agenda items at the beginning of a meeting or during each agenda item.
The point of the law is to stop some governments from stifling public comment.
On some boards, public comments are saved for the end of a meeting, usually quite late. By the time those interested get to speak, officials may already have voted on the item.
Other boards didn’t schedule public comments anywhere in their meetings.
So why is 51 minutes symbolic?
A citizen attended a Blanco County Commissioners Court meeting in Johnson City and apparently wanted to test the new law.
According to a letter sent by the county attorney to the Texas attorney general’s office asking for a ruling: “One member of the public wanted to comment on 17 of the 21 items.”
Deborah Earley, the county lawyer, writes that would give the speaker 51 minutes of time.
“This would be disruptive to the efficient flow of government,” she argues. “Obviously, if every member of the public who wanted to speak got three minutes per item, the commissioners would not be able to have an effective meeting.”
The county asked the AG’s office for guidance: “Is the county required to let the public speak immediately before each agenda item? If the county has a policy of 3 minutes per item, can the county also regulate the total time a speaker can have?”
The AG is still working on the answer. Whatever it is will be studied by governments across the state.
What the law says
Under the new law, you can give your thoughts about an agenda item “before or during” discussion by the board.
A board “may adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body, including rules that limit the total amount of time that a member of the public may address the body on a given item.”
If a translator is involved, the speaker gets double the time.
Finally, a government “may not prohibit public criticism of the government body.”
League City lawyer Gregory M. Ellis summarized the thoughts of many confused government types in a note to me: “The wording of the statute isn’t terribly precise.”
He believes the law’s sponsor, state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, “intended that comments should always be heard before there is a vote. I’m not sure his intent was for open forum/town hall meeting style meetings. Now we will find out what the attorney general thinks.”
I’ve heard of several cases in which citizen watchdogs, familiar with the new law, are testing it.
In San Benito ISD, which is west of South Padre Island, watchdog Joe F. Rodriguez tells me that his school board adopted a policy that allows public comments only on agenda items, but nothing else.
“The reason given by some board members was that some speakers were not respecting the school board of trustees,” he says.
Rodriguez argues that the law says public criticism cannot be stifled. He’s waiting for the AG ruling.
Similarly, Terry Roach is working to get Fort Worth ISD to update its policy. The district’s currently stated policy limits audience participation to a special slot without being able to comment on agenda items as the law allows unless requested by the presiding officer, he complains.
Fort Worth ISD spokesman Clint Bond says his district is complying with the new law by allowing citizens to speak either during a general comment period or with each agenda item. However, the district’s website has not been updated to reflect that policy change. “We are in the process of updating the guidelines posted,” he says.
The Texas Association of School Boards recommends that citizens be allowed to speak at every open meeting, not just regular meetings. It suggests that boards can no longer require the designation of a spokesperson when many people want to speak on a topic.
TASB also recommends that a “board may continue, but is not required, to receive public comments concerning subject matters not posted on an agenda.”
Hmm. That seems anti-democratic. If people can’t speak openly about matters that concern them, a government fails to represent them properly.
This is the dilemma faced by local elected officials and others who run public boards where members are appointed. How far will they go allowing you to speak?
I like a comment by Atascosa County Judge Robert L. Hurley. “I think the citizen is my employer,” the leader of the county south of San Antonio told me. “I support their right to speak regardless of their bent. My only caveat is that I try to run an orderly meeting that doesn’t go on forever.”
Note: Questions or complaints about public information or open meetings can be addressed through the Texas attorney general’s hotline at 512-478-6736 or toll-free at 1-877-673-6839.