A new law went into effect in Texas on Sept. 1 that increases the legal rights of people who wish to speak in front of appointed leaders or governing bodies.
House Bill 2840 requires governmental bodies to allow any member of the public who wishes to address the body on an agenda item be given a chance to speak either before or during the body's consideration of that item.
It also states that a governmental body could not prohibit public criticism of that body unless that criticism was otherwise prohibited by law.
This includes criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program or service.
Where the criticism is prohibited by law still remains to be seen, but things such as defamation would fall under that category.
Public comment at meetings was on the mind of the Fort Stockton City Council in July, according to e-mails sent by City Secretary Delma Gonzalez to the Texas Municipal League. The e-mails were obtained by The Pioneer through an open records request.
Gonzalez sent a message to Bill Longley, the legislative council at the Texas Municipal League, asking if the city council could prevent an individual or individuals who are non-residents from making comments during agenda items, if they could prevent people from making comments if it doesn't personally affect them, and if they could include that in the guidelines included on each meeting agenda.
“We have some individuals that continue to make false accusations or statements during some items that are negatively affecting the City and its personnel which the media publicizes,” said Gonzalez in her email.
In response, Longley said that they generally advise a city should allow anyone who wishes to speak during public comment to do so, regardless of status as a resident of the city or non-resident.
He also said, “There would be some serious legal/constitutional concerns with the city limiting the ability to speak at a meeting based on the city's opinions as to how council action might affect the person.”
The governmental bodies are still allowed to adopt reasonable rules on the public's right to speak, such as setting a time limit.
If the person addressing the body needs a translator, the governmental body is required to allow at least twice the normal amount of time for the non-English speaker to address the body.
The governmental body can decide whether or not to allow the public to speak on non-agenda items.
For the Pecos County Commissioners, Judge Joe Shuster said they have never had any issues with allowing people to speak during the agenda item, but because of the passing of the law they added a space at the beginning of the meeting to ensure the public knows when they can speak.
“We've always just allowed it to happen,” he said.
General Manager of the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District Ty Edwards said that they allow people to speak on agenda items when they are called or at the beginning.
Being able to speak when an item is called is important, said Edwards, because you may hear something that sparks a question or may have an opinion you need to share.
“It's hard to get the public to come out and participate at all,” said Edwards. “We should be welcoming it.”