Edinburg council amends speaking rules

Councilman Gilbert Enriquez and Mayor Richard Molina

EDINBURG — The mayor can no longer dictate who can speak during council meetings nor stop the discussion after the council voted last week to amend its rulebook following a heated debate between the mayor and the mayor pro tem.

Councilman Gilbert Enriquez asked city attorney Omar Ochoa to draft changes to Robert’s Rules of Order, a guide the council previously adopted to conduct meetings. The manual of parliamentary procedure basically allows the presiding officer, in this case the mayor, to command the discussion and gives specific instructions on when others can speak about an item on the agenda.

“I had asked our city attorney to come up with some proposals on how we can continue the debate even though there is a clear majority that doesn’t want to hear, or debate, or engage in debate,” Enriquez said, calling the inability to speak a lack of transparency. “I feel that the citizens of Edinburg should hear every one of us. That’s what we were elected to do: to discuss, debate, to ask questions out in the open so the public can understand what’s happening with their tax dollars.”

Initially, Councilman Johnny Garcia wanted to speak about the matter behind closed doors, but Ochoa said the item should be discussed in public — unless the council had questions about legal ramifications over the adoption of the new rules. Garcia’s attempt to move it into executive session failed, so the council spent 35 minutes arguing about it during open session.

A large majority of the conversation was dominated by Mayor Richard Molina and Enriquez, who lobbed snide remarks at each other, as Ochoa tried to explain the proposed changes to the council.

“So under Robert’s rules currently, discussion can be limited at any time with a motion to call the question and a vote of two-thirds of the city council,” Ochoa explained. “But under each of these proposals, that is done away with. And essentially what happens is the chair will call for a vote and if any one member opposes moving into a vote, the council cannot move forward with the vote. They have to continue the discussion until no member objects.”

“Mr. Ochoa … why did you recommend that we go to the Robert’s Rules of Order to begin with — because this was your idea,” the mayor asked. “You’re the one that shared it with us.”

Ochoa said the city was already informally following those rules before their formal adoption in 2019. And he suggested them because as city attorney he was tasked with acting as parliamentarian and stepping in to keep order.

“Do you see any issues with Robert’s Rules of Order,” Molina asked him.

“In general, no. It’s a popularly used set of rules, not just by this municipality, but by many others,” he said, adding the rule book is a helpful guideline.

“Do you see any problems by amending this, that there’d be any decorum issues,” Molina continued. “Is there anything that you foresee could take place, where you as a parliamentarian are going to have issues with stuff that’s being talked about that’s not on the agenda?”

“If your question is limited to just the decorum aspect of this, that’s straightforward: this does not affect the decorum of city council proceedings,” Ochoa replied. “The amendment here is limited.”

Molina said he researched the issue and found that Robert’s Rules of Order, the way the council initially adopted it, was the most widely used manual of parliamentarian procedure in the United States.

“So basically this has been around since 1876. So I don’t get it. I mean, Gilbert you’re always going to have a second (motion) with Mr. (David) White. I don’t think you’re ever going to disagree with him.”

Enriquez was quick to respond and the discussion that followed shone a light on the mayor’s former power to control the conversation.

“You see — there,” Enriquez said, highlighting the mayor’s remark.

“No, I’m just, I’m just saying, I mean…” Molina responded.

“Can I say something?” Enriquez asked the mayor.

“Well, no, no, no,” the mayor replied. “I have something to say.”

“Well, cause you asked me a question,” Enriquez said.

“Well, wait a minute,” the mayor told him before reading a lengthy legal description about the rule book.

“My fear is the decorum. That … you’re just going to have people shouting and discussion. And you know, the directors are tired….these meetings literally should be 60 minutes to 90 minutes, and we’re just here, you know, constantly going and going and going,” Molina said. “And there’s a difference between transparency and asking questions and there’s a difference between grandstanding. And to me, in my opinion…”

“We’re grandstanding right now,” Councilman David White interjected.

Molina was quick to note the disruption.

“So you know, there’s somebody that spoke out of turn there. So he doesn’t want the rules so he can throw stuff like that in. And you know, he’s been on the council for 60 days, so he knows it all,” Molina said about White. “But anyways, like I was saying, to me it’s very simple. You have to have decorum and you have to have rules. And to me, the reason this is being put out here is because I’m the mayor. If there was another mayor here, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

He then spoke of the negative attention Edinburg has endured.

“Our city needs to be healed. It’s hurting,” Molina continued. “There has to be an end to this. And I’m saying that we’re here to be productive. I would wish that you guys would put something on the agenda that pertained to something positive instead of always trying to create the illusion of dysfunction and create the illusion that something bad has happened here in the city.”

He then turned his attention to last year’s municipal election.

“We have a new council and then we go right back to where we were,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter who sits in the seats, the dysfunction continues.”

The mayor then yielded the floor to Enriquez, who said he proposed to change the rules because the previous majority stopped him from asking questions during a meeting last year by calling for a vote.

Afterward, Enriquez said he asked for the item to be placed on the agenda again to finish his line of questioning. But during the second meeting, the majority did not second his motion to begin discussion, so he was unable to speak once more.

“It was something that the majority at the time didn’t want to discuss. They didn’t feel compelled to give me a second (motion) and therefore we could not discuss the item,” he said, without mentioning what the item was about. “And I just, for the life of me, I don’t understand why anyone up here would want to stifle discussion. I mean, it’s a healthy part of what we do as elected officials. If not, then why are we here?”

His proposal had nothing to do with the mayor or anyone on the council, Enriquez continued.

“It’s about informing the public, letting them know what’s going on with their tax dollars,” he said. “And then maybe you can bring back credibility to the city at that point.”

The mayor, however, said Enriquez was simply trying to “strongarm” the council into changing their vote by putting the item on the agenda again.

“What you wanted to do was control the meeting and continue to grandstand. I’ve let you talk. Things have been going fine,” Molina said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the discussion process. I’m allowing everybody to speak, and this just keeps a checks and balances. It was recommended by our city attorney. It wasn’t recommended by me.”

“I don’t understand why you continue to say that you want the city to heal and all this stuff,” Enriquez said a few moments later. “Well, this is part of the healing process. Let’s make it easier for us to discuss items.”

“The healing process is listening to you grandstand, keep our directors hours and hours and hours away from their family so that you can ask questions that you could have asked the city manager,” the mayor responded. “You had 72 hours to ask those questions. I have no problem debating, but at the same time, we can’t be here all night and hold these directors at work from eight-to-five and bring them in at 6 (p.m.) to 8, 9, 10.”

The mayor said Enriquez’ proposal was all a political move to measure his power.

“Once again, you want to put all the council members on the spot to see if they’re going to go along with your agenda,” Molina said, adding that he’s allowed Enriquez to speak ever since the November 2019 municipal election. “You get to talk and talk and talk so that everybody can watch the ‘Council Member Enriquez Show’ and we’re all here to see it.”

David White weighed in a few moments later, saying Molina has previously stopped him from speaking.

“You’ve cut me off,” he said. “So you sit there and you say, ‘we’re following all of Robert’s Rules of Order…’ that’s a farce.”

White said he understood Molina’s concern about employees who have to stay for lengthy meetings.

“I’ve been sitting in those chairs, and those chairs get hard after a while, but generally, most of the time, we get something that’s very respectable that comes out of this dais,” he said.

Additionally, White is willing to side with Molina should things get out of control.

“If we find that it’s being abused, we can come back to it. And I’ll tell you what, I’ll jump back onto it with you and I’ll squash this thing down, too,” White told the mayor.

And after a few quiet moments, the council voted 3 to 2 to adopt the new rules. Molina and councilmember Jorge Salinas voted against the measure.