Some residents across the Rio Grande Valley have been forced to endure a sort of battle of wits with elected officials who don’t seem interested in being responsive to those who elected them. Several elected bodies have restricted access to public comments during open meetings, or constantly changed the timing of comment periods in efforts to avoid certain speakers or certain issues. Often that meant moving public comments to the end of the meeting, depriving people of the chance to address issues that would be voted on during that meeting. Such placement would render comments on those issues moot.
Questions about why anyone would seek to be elected to a government body and then not interact with their constituents is another issue, to be addressed between individual officials and those who elect them. But a board as a whole should not enable its members to dodge their responsibility and put up roadblocks to anyone who wishes to address an issue before the body or otherwise comment on the body, its members or the community it was created to serve.
Fortunately, a new law that took effect Sept. 1 should help make officials more accountable, and help standardize public meetings.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, authored House Bill 2840, which requires a governmental body to allow members of the public to address any item on a meeting agenda before or during the body’s consideration of the item.
The new law does preserve those bodies’ right to set time limits on individual comments, as long as non-English speakers and anyone else who requires translation receives twice the designated time in order to allow for the translation. This only applies when immediate translation isn’t available, such as a sign-language interpreter who provides the translation while a person is speaking.
It also upholds the public’s right to criticize the body, its members and its actions.
Most boards and commissions subject to the law have placed their public comment periods early on their agendas to meet the new law’s mandates.
This, coupled with the standard “two reading” provisions of most bodies, should enable diligent members of a community to address their officials and comment on a proposal before a final vote. Even if they miss the first meeting where an item was deliberated, they can review minutes of that meeting and prepare themselves to address the board the next time it meets.
Rep. Canales is one of several state legislators who have pledged to defend Texas residents from the efforts of some elected officials and commissions to escape public scrutiny and accountability. It’s unfortunate that those efforts exist; logic would suggest that honest politicians would want the people to know what they’re doing to make their communities better.
Fortunately, alert voters have managed to elect Canales and others who are committed to preserving the window of public scrutiny that helps keep officials honest, and their constituents informed.