Mercedes unlikely to revive public comment during city meetings

MERCEDES — Despite a renewed crusade this month by citizens who want to reinstate public comment during meetings, a majority of commissioners here have not indicated a willingness to reconsider their decision.

In January, the city commission eliminated the public comment portion of its meetings, frustrating citizens who regularly attend, including former commissioner Jose Gomez, who often participated.

A short video posted Tuesday on Twitter showed City Attorney Juan Molina gesturing for City Manager Sergio Zavala and commissioners Howard Wade and Leo Villarreal to leave the commission chamber following adjournment while Lauren Pitts, 19, pleaded for street lights to be added to Mile 2 East — the road where her friend, David Gobellan, was struck by a driver. Gobellan, who was riding a bicycle at the time of the crash earlier this month, died Wednesday at a hospital.

“I’ve been down that road plenty of times,” Pitts said in the video recorded by another citizen after the meeting. “There needs to be a change.”

Commissioner Ruben “Chano” Guajardo, who was not in the video shared widely on social media, said he left the chamber upon adjournment. The video does not begin until he is outside of the camera’s view, and he said he did not know a citizen would be speaking following the special meeting held Tuesday.

“I didn’t have the slightest idea until I got home and I got phone calls,” Guajardo said of what transpired shortly after adjournment.

The commission could have been in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, he said, if they discussed issues not listed on the agenda, such as street lights.

The widely viewed video prompted the city to post a news release to its website Wednesday to “clear the air.”

“The act does not entitle the general public to choose the items to be discussed or to speak about items on the agenda. … “ the release states. “A governmental body may, however, give members of the public an opportunity to speak at a public meeting. If it does so, it may set reasonable limits on the number, frequency and length of presentations before it.”

Though the agenda did not include an item about street lights, Pitts believes the public should be allowed to speak about city issues during meetings.

“When something like this happens, you want to go to your city. … You don’t want to have to wait for them to decide, ‘Oh, you know what, I’ll let you speak this time, let me put her on the agenda this week,’” Pitts said.

Commissioners could have remained in the chamber and been in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires governmental bodies make “decision-making accessible to the public.”

A violation occurs when “members engage in a verbal exchange about public business or policy,” according to the act.

If two members of the commission had stayed behind, they would not be in violation of the act because it applies to the presence of a quorum. In Mercedes, at least three members make up a quorum.

The act, though, does not require governmental bodies to designate a segment during meetings for public comment.

“I really hope they do open up the open forum again,” Pitts said.

Israel Coronado, who recently began attending city meetings in Mercedes and Weslaco, said he made it his mission to “at least bring back the voice in Mercedes” and called the removal of public comment “a mockery of freedom of speech.”

“I’m working very hard in organizing people to bring this back,” he said.

Their efforts, though, might not be enough to convince this commission to add public comment.

Wade and Cristella “Cris” De Leon, who in the past refused to be interviewed by The Monitor following commission meetings, did not return requests for comment Tuesday or Wednesday, leaving it unclear where they might now stand in regards to public comment. De Leon also departed while Pitts spoke.

Villarreal did not return calls for comment.

Mayor Henry Hinojosa said Thursday the decision to eliminate public comment would “stay the way it is.”

“We never got rid of it, we just perfected it,” he said about public comment, referring to an added feature allowing residents to submit complaints on the city’s website.

Some residents feel a complaint form is not enough.

“A huge portion of the population does not know how to use a computer,” Coronado said, noting that some residents do not have access to the online form.

Pitts used the form to submit a request for street lights on Mile 2 East. Guajardo said the city recently purchased street lights to be added there.

“‘If you give up on your hometown, how do you expect it to change?’ That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everybody,” Pitts said.

The next regular city commission meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday.