Now They Tell Us: Authority to Regulate Public Comments
On April 22, 2020, the Attorney General provided additional guidance on the implementation of Texas Government Code §551.007. This section went into effect on September 1, 2019 and the sections addressed in the Opinion state:
- A governmental body shall allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda for an open meeting of the body to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item.
- A governmental body may adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body under this section, including rules that limit the total amount of time that a member of the public may address the body on a given item.
The first question presented was whether §551.007(b) permits a district to hold one public comment period at the beginning of an open meeting to address all agenda items, or instead, whether §551.007(b) requires a district to hold separate public comment periods immediately before each agenda item. The Attorney General opined that the plain language of section (b) allows the district to choose when the public forum to discuss agenda items may take place. It states further that the public forum is not required to be adjacent to the agenda item. Thus, a single public comment period at the beginning of an open meeting to address all items on the agenda is acceptable under this section of the statute.
As most districts have already interpreted subsection (b) to mean the above, it is the second question presented that provides the new insight. In the second question addressed in the Opinion, it is asked whether §551.007 permits a district to limit the total amount of time it gives a speaker to address all desired agenda items. What subsection (b) giveth, subsection (c) taketh away. This subsection allows a district to provide reasonable rules for the public forum.
In the Opinion, the Attorney General states that a district may not only cap the amount of time an individual has to speak, but may put a reasonable cap on the speaker if he/she chooses to address all agenda items. In effect, if there is a five minute cap on a speaker to speak about one agenda item, and there are eight agenda items to speak on, the district may limit the total time a speaker speaks instead of having to provide a full 40 minutes, but only to a reasonable period of time based on “the number of agenda items and their complexity.” Thus, this additional limitation on a speaker’s ability to dominate an evening has been somewhat clipped by the Attorney General.
If you should have additional questions regarding this specific provision or any other Open Meetings Act provision, please do not hesitate to contact any of the attorneys at Leasor Crass, P.C.