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Outspoken critics of Commissioners Court picked for decorum rules committee

Claire Nybro (left), Patricia Cope, and Charlie Parker

Burnet County residents Claire Nybro (left), Patricia Cope, and Charlie Parker were appointed to a committee tasked with going over proposed changes to the Burnet County Commissioners Court’s Rules of Conduct and Decorum. All three residents spoke out against changes to the rules proposed by Judge James Oakley on Nov. 14. Staff photos by Dakota Morrissiey

Three of the Burnet County Commissioners Court’s harshest critics were appointed to a joint committee to hash out proposed changes to the court’s rules of decorum, which have been on every meeting agenda for discussion since Oct. 10 with no resolution.

The court picked Burnet County residents Patricia Cope, Claire Nybro, and Charlie Parker to serve on the new rules and decorum committee alongside commissioners Damon Beierle and Billy Wall, who each volunteered. The committee will reportedly meet between now and the next court meeting, which is Nov. 28.

County Judge James Oakley proposed rule adjustments during the Oct. 10 meeting that would restrict the audience’s ability to interrupt a meeting or speak on items that aren’t on the agenda. He based his first proposed set of rules on those suggested by the Texas Association of Counties and said the Commissioners Court needed rules to control the growing number of disruptions and outbursts during meetings.

A vote on the matter was pushed to Oct. 24, when the court amended the proposed changes to include allowing public comments on every agenda item. 

All three of the residents appointed to the committee spoke during public comment at the outset of the meeting, expressing concern over the rule changes proposed by Oakley.

“I’m here this morning to express my outrage at the agenda being put forth as far as rules of conduct and decorum,” Parker said during his three-minute public comment. “This is clearly a First Amendment and free speech issue and clearly an attack on the people’s unalienable rights.”

Nybro, who is a regular speaker during Commissioners Court meetings, read aloud from a prepared statement.

“I want Burnet County to be run by five commissioners, not just one,” she said, referring to Oakley’s proposed rule changes. “There is so much wrong with Judge Oakley’s latest revision of (the rules of conduct and decorum policy) that is unacceptable to anyone who holds our First Amendment right to free speech in high regard.”

Cope also spoke. Her past conduct is one of the reasons the rules were suggested. At a Sept. 26 meeting, she was escorted back to her seat by a bailiff at Oakley’s request after interrupting court business. 

“I strongly object to the words (in the proposed rule changes) as they’re written,” Cope said at the Nov. 14 meeting. “I think that this needs to be revised.”

The rule changes proposed by Oakley centered on more organized meetings that would limit the public’s ability to interrupt or speak in the middle of the court’s discussions. His rules did expand the amount of time allotted to three minutes from two. 

In the original draft of his proposed rules, public comment would be limited to a specific agenda item at the outset of the meeting and only be allowed at the discretion of the court throughout the rest of the agenda. During the Oct. 24 court meeting, two commissioners agreed that public comment could be allowed at the outset of each agenda item, as long as it was related to that agenda item. The suggestion was included in the most recent draft.

“No one is trying to suppress anything, I cannot emphasize that enough,” Oakley said as the discussion came to a close. “But we are going to have order in this court and treat everybody respectfully.”