City council shrinks window on agenda for comments by public

Q: Our city council cut down on the public comment period in its meetings by restricting the subject matter of comments to items on the meeting agenda. Also, no matter how many people are signed up to speak, the council is limiting the total amount of time allotted for any agenda item to 10 minutes. Are these changes in compliance with the Texas open meetings law and are they somehow tied to the governor’s COVID-19 order?
A: The 86th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2840, legislation relating to the right of a member of the public to address the governing body of a political subdivision at an open meeting of the body. The new law took effect Sept. 1, 2019. 
Under SB 2840, governmental bodies may adopt “reasonable rules” to allow citizens to speak publicly about an agenda item before the item is laid out for discussion or during the discussion of the item. Limiting the amount of time for individual citizens to speak might be addressed in the adoption of reasonable rules.  
On March 16, Gov. Greg Abbott granted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to suspend certain Texas Open Meetings Act statutes temporarily “to allow for telephonic or videoconference meetings of governmental bodies that are accessible to the public in an effort to reduce in-person meetings that assemble large groups of people.” 
In granting the request, Abbott urged state and local officials “to do their part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding meetings that bring people into large group settings.”
Governmental bodies still must obey Texas Open Meetings Act requirements that:
– Entitle the public to participate and address the governmental body during any telephonic or video conference meeting;
– Require written notice that gives the public a way to participate remotely, such as a toll-free dial-in number, and that includes an electronic copy of any agenda packet that officials will consider at the meeting; and
– Require public access to a recording of any telephonic or video conference meeting.

Q: Who is a good contact on what is legal under the current government meeting rules? Last night, the school board had its first meeting without a posted virtual component. Yet, one board member attended the session through an online link. There was no public access to the meeting virtually.
A: It is my understanding, based on input Kelley Shannon has been collecting from around the state, that current COVID-19 influenced Texas open meetings rules are not being uniformly observed. Please contact: Kelley Shannon, director, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, phone (512) 377-1565, email kelley.shannon@foift.org.
Before you call Kelley, please find at gov.texas.gov the March 16 COVID-19-related news release from the governor’s office. It’s about the temporary suspension of in-person open meetings requirements “to maintain government transparency and continued government operations while reducing face-to-face contact for government open meetings.”
Abbott, in the release, says: This temporary suspension will leave important open-meeting protections in place:
– Members of the public will be entitled to participate and address the governmental body during any telephonic or videoconference meeting;
– To hold a telephonic or videoconference meeting, a governmental body must post a written notice that gives the public a way to participate remotely, such as a toll-free dial-in number, and that includes an electronic copy of any agenda packet that officials will consider at the meeting; and
– A governmental body must provide the public with access to a recording of any telephonic or videoconference meeting.

Q: I received a message from our county judge’s office informing me that court/legal notices, the ones about settlement agreements, will now be published on a court website rather than in the newspaper. Is this for real?
A: Despite intensive efforts by the Texas Press Association lobbying team and individual members to amend Senate Bill 891, the measure passed in the 2019 legislative session.
The bill relates “to the operation and administration of and practice in and grants provided by courts in the judicial branch of state government; increasing and imposing fees; creating a criminal offense.” 
Article 10 of the bill, ELECTRONIC PUBLICATION, SERVICE, AND DISPLAY OF LEGAL DOCUMENTS, took effect on June 1. Under the bill’s Sec. 17.032, CITATION BY PUBLICATION, you will find that a person may publish a citation or notice on the public information Internet website maintained by the county court, and not in a newspaper, IF (1) the person files a statement of inability to afford payment of court costs under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure; (2) the total cost of the required publication exceeds the greater of $200 each week or the amount set by the Supreme Court; or (3) the county in which the publication of the citation or notice is required does not have any newspaper published, printed or generally circulated in the county.

Q: My newspaper covers our county, including the county seat and three other cities. The three cities submitted their usual display-style water quality public notices for publication. But the county seat city only submitted a tiny classified ad and said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved it. How can that be?
A: On Dec. 31, 2004, the TCEQ, acting within its executive agency rule-making authority, adopted Rule §290.274, Report Delivery and Record-keeping, under Chapter 290, Public Drinking Water, Subchapter H, Consumer Confidence Reports.
The rule, which we would refer to as “permissive” because it affords authorities a variety of methods to notify affected parties, says each community water system shall mail or otherwise directly deliver one copy of the report to each bill-paying customer by July 1 of each year.
Farther down in the rule it says “a good-faith effort to reach such consumers should include a mix of methods appropriate to the particular system such as: posting the reports on the Internet; mailing to postal patrons in metropolitan areas; advertising the availability of the report in the news media; publication in a local newspaper; posting in public places such as cafeterias or lunchrooms of public buildings; delivery of multiple copies for distribution for single-billed customers such as apartment buildings or large private employers; and delivery to community organizations.”
There is no more effective way to notify property owners, renters and others in a community than to publish an easy-to-find/won’t-get-lost, full-text notice in standard format, in your newspaper. 
The good-faith effort the rule speaks to is one that we all envision as a notice in your newspaper, for all the community to see and read.

Editor's Note: This is the final TPA Hotline column written by former Member Services Director Ed Sterling, who retired July 22, 2020.