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Patricia Cope spoke during the public comment portion of the Oct. 24 meeting of the Burnet County Commissioners Court, advocating for the First Amendment right to speak out in public meetings. Cope was escorted back to her seat by the bailiff in September when she refused to leave the microphone after interrupting the court’s proceedings. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey
The Burnet County Commissioners Court continues to tweak a proposed re-draft of its Rules of Conduct and Decorum to create tighter parameters for public participation while still allowing people to voice their opinions during meetings. The proposed changes would clarify when and how long a member of the public can speak during a meeting.
The rule changes were first proposed during the court’s Oct. 10 meeting, but no decision was made due to the absence of Precinct 1 Commissioner Jim Luther. As initially proposed, the rules would only allow the public to speak at the beginning of each meeting or the discretion of the court’s presiding officer.
The matter was addressed again during the Tuesday, Oct. 24, meeting, with still only four members present. This time, Commissioner Damon Beierle was absent. A final vote on the rules is expected at a future meeting.
Commissioners seem to be leaning toward allowing public comment at the outset of each agenda item, not just at the start of the meeting.
“I like interaction with the public. I want to have feedback,” Judge James Oakley said during the Tuesday meeting. “What has occurred, things have gotten a little bit out of control as to how the meetings have been run.”
Oakley was referring to recent instances of disorganized public participation at meetings during which members of the audience interrupted the court’s discussion of agenda items, went beyond their allotted speaking times, or made public comments unrelated to the agenda items being discussed.
One example occurred during a Sept. 26 meeting. Burnet County resident Patricia Cope, who regularly attends Commissioners Court meetings, walked up to the microphone and began speaking unprompted during the “old business” section of the agenda.
“I’d like to have my papers presented earlier from agenda item 13 from the last meeting and agenda item 14 from the last meeting, which is where we discussed statute 171.009 and I provided it to the court …” Cope began.
“Ma’am, we’ve already had public comment,” Oakley replied.
“That’s fine,” said Cope, continuing her point.
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to take a seat,” Oakley said.
Cope continued her comment. The judge then asked the bailiff to escort Cope back to her seat, which he did.
“We want to conduct the business of the Commissioners Court,” Oakley said during the Tuesday meeting. “We want to be efficient with the use of time and respect the laws that are in place so that we can conduct the business of the people.”
Oakley’s original submission of rules followed Texas Local Government Code 551, which guarantees the public’s ability to make comments at the very least during a “public comment” agenda item at the beginning of the meeting. Commissioners Joe Don Dockery, Billy Wall, and Damon Beierle all said they would like to allow the public to speak on each specific agenda item.
“Instead of going like we’ve been in the past, where people get up and speak throughout the time that we’re considering the agenda, (I think) that we put (the public comment portion) in front (of each agenda item). So, if you do have something to say about the agenda … they can speak beforehand and let the court consider the agenda item without any interference,” said Wall after the judge’s proposal.
Burnet County Justice of the Peace Lisa Whitehead read a written statement from Beierle on the subject.
“We need the general public comment item for the public to make comments to us on any subject that they want to,” she read. “I also think we should open a public comment opportunity on each agenda item. An efficient meeting is important, but public input is paramount.”
Dockery said he wanted to give people the ability to comment on agenda items as long as the comments were relevant.
“I feel that is appropriate (to accept public comment) if it’s something that pertains to that particular agenda item,” he said.
The court has a legal obligation to allow public comments, Burnet County Attorney Eddie Arredondo told DailyTrib.com, adding that the county has historically been fairly relaxed with its regulation of public participation.
“It’s important that we allow folks their opportunity to have their say, but it’s perceived to have gotten to the point where the Commissioners Court believes it’s interfering with their ability to carry out their duties,” he said. “(The commissioners and judge) have got a responsibility to carry out business (of the court), and the way it’s been going, there have been interruptions that have prevented that from happening. I don’t believe anybody is intentionally trying to interfere with the court. … I think what we need to do is clarify, ‘This is going to be your opportunity to make your comments, and then after that, business is going to continue.’”