New Texas Law Protects Right To Speak Up at Local Meetings

Back in the day, it was called a soapbox. Nowadays, if you want to vent your spleen about something your government is doing (or not doing), the portion of an open meeting reserved for public comment is one option.
Only, until September, some governments didn’t do it. The law didn’t require it. So, House Bill 2840 sought to rectify the matter and make public participation in local government meetings uniformly offered across Texas.

“Before House Bill 2840, there were concerns that some local governments were not giving the public a sufficient opportunity to participate in open meetings,” Texas Rep. John Turner explained.

“For example, it was possible to allow public comments only at the end of a meeting or even not allow public comments at all,” he said.

What does the law require? Residents are allowed to comment before or even during consideration of agenda items. It also allows for double the time for non-English speakers to accommodate translation unless simultaneous translation services are available. It still lets entities establish time limits and sign-up requirements.

It also outlines what kind of meetings and entities must allow comment, so committee meetings and other discussions that may have once been open, but not open to comment, are likely now required to offer it.

However, for most local governments, it didn’t change much. Dallas ISD and the city of Dallas already offered the public the chance to comment both on agenda items and non-agenda items, generally at the beginning of the meeting.

“I believe we will handle the requests like we currently do in a public hearing,” said Dallas city council member Jennifer Staubach Gates. “We hear from those that have signed up on the item and then hear from anyone else in the audience willing to speak.”

Dallas City Secretary Billierae Johnson added, “On items other than public hearings, they must be registered to speak on the item.  Once they are registered, the speaker will be heard before the city council considers the item.”

For Dallas ISD meetings, time is set aside at the beginning of the meeting for public comment, and commenters are also required to register ahead of time.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few tweaks. For instance, the Dallas City Council voted Oct. 23 to add boards and commissions to its open meetings rules, and Dallas ISD’s most recent meetings have included interpreters for Spanish-speaking commenters.

Dallas ISD trustee Joyce Foreman said she welcomes the clarity the new law affords since she frequently uses the public comment portion of meetings to explain her position when she lacks a second trustee to pull an item from the consent agenda.

“I am excited about HB2840 and its ability to give voice to the community,” she said. “This is a monumental step for the community to have the ability to weigh in on items of concern that are posted on the agenda.”

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, deputy editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected]

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