Members of the public may now sign up to comment on any and all agenda items at Richmond City Commission meetings. That could make for a long meeting if 20 people sign up to speak on each topic of a 20-item agenda.
Richmond city commissioners reviewed the change to the Texas Open Meetings Act, and how it would impact commission meetings. City of Richmond Attorney Gary Smith explained the changes brought about by House Bill 2840, which went into effect Sept. 1.
He assured city commissioners they could adopt “reasonable rules,” such as time limits, and enforce decorum at meetings.
The city commission presently allows speakers up to three minutes at the podium. However, the new statute allows members of the public to speak during the public comments section of the meeting, which is held at the start of proceedings, or when a specific agenda item comes up, he said.
Smith said the city cannot prevent citizens from speaking on individual agenda items if they wish to do so.
Specifically, House Bill 2840 requires city councils, school boards, county commissioners courts and other governmental entities to:
• Allow every person who wishes to address the board on an agenda item to do so during or before the board’s consideration of the item.
• Allow the public to comment before or during the board’s consideration of agenda items at all open meetings, such as workshops or specially-called meetings.
• Establish reasonable rules for public comments, including rules that limit the total time a member of the public can address the board on a given item.
However, the law prevents government entities from demanding a single individual speak on behalf of others on the same agenda topic. The law also prohibits public criticism of the board, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedures, program or service.
Houston Attorney Joe Larson, who provides his legal opinion on open record and open meeting issues for the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, said he doesn’t believe the new law allows an individual to speak on each agenda item for three to five minutes.
“There is absolutely no way this law will allow the people to take over a meeting,” he said. “The government has to have control of the meetings and this new law does not sacrifice control of the meeting to a person who wants to speak on every single topic.”
He said he suspects the new statute allows government leaders to set some sort of limit for speakers who desire to discuss multiple agenda items at a meeting.
“I think a governmental body could, for example, could limit the amount of time any one individual has to address the meeting, and the speakers could use that time to speak on all the topics or just focus on one or two and speak more in depth,” he said.
At the Richmond commission meeting, commissioners also discussed changes to the rules of the commission regarding agenda items.
Under the new rule, each commissioner may ask to have up to three items on a meeting’s agenda, but the provision allows the city manager to waive an agenda item if she thinks the meeting will be too long or that the item deserves more attention at a future meeting.