McALLEN — As bills passed by lawmakers in the recent state legislative session go into effect beginning Sept. 1, officials here are bracing for the implementation of a new public comment law that they worry could affect efficiency at city commission meetings.
The new law allows for the opportunity for the public to comment at public city meetings across the state on any agenda item before the elected officials take said item up for a vote. Typical city commission meetings in McAllen have more than 45 agenda items.
“It could certainly turn into a problematic situation,” said City Attorney Kevin Pagan, who said meetings could potentially last significantly longer on the second and fourth Mondays of every month.
City officials said the law does not do much to enhance city business, which was punctuated by the Texas Municipal League opposing it. But it wasn’t the only quirky act by the state legislature during the 86th legislative session, officials said. Smoking cigarettes will now only be allowed if you’re 21 years old, unless you’re in the military. Then, smoking is permitted at 18 years old.
But the law relating to city meetings, for McAllen’s part, is steeped in history. Many years ago, before McAllen began broadcasting its meetings on television, the city held a public comment period at the beginning of city meetings to address commissioners.
“Over time, people began to realize since meetings were broadcast live, so people could come up and say a whole manner of stuff that had nothing to do with the City of McAllen,” Pagan said. “For legal reasons, about 10 to 12 years ago, we decided we would continue the public comment period but not broadcast it. There was slander and defamation coming from certain people and in some cases, profane language.”
Pagan added: “We were concerned it could create liability for the city.”
That thinking was not shared by everyone. Multiple candidates running for city commission and mayor in recent elections have tried to make public comment a campaign issue, though at times inaccuracies were raised. In 2017, following the previous state legislative session, Pagan said a bill forced the city to move public comment to before commission meetings.
Prior to that, the public comment section of meetings was after the regular open session and before the private executive session. Before the closed-door session, Mayor Jim Darling has often met with citizens looking to speak to the elected officials.
“People here elect commissioners to conduct city businesses,” Pagan said.
City commissioners decided at their last meeting that the public comment period for every item will be at the beginning of city commission meetings. The public can sign up, and each person will be allowed two minutes for comment on the agenda items.