Public Input Ahead of City Council Decisions on Agenda Items Now Required under Texas Law
In Texas, it has long been established that the public has a right to attend public meetings, such as city council meetings, so that they can be aware of what’s going on in their local government. There is an entire chapter in the Texas Government Code known as the Texas Open Meetings Act which provides rules a local governmental body must follow when noticing meetings and providing the public an opportunity to attend. Some, but certainly not all, Texas cities would also give their citizens an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns at these meetings. There previously had been no law compelling local governmental bodies to do so, but that changed in 2019.
As of September 1, 2019, the public not only has a right to attend public meetings, but members of the public now have a right to offer their opinions on issues during these meetings. Texas House Bill 2840 provides in part:
“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.”
This means that at any open meeting, members of the public can now speak on any agenda item either before or during the governmental body’s consideration of that item. It stands to reason that citizens should be able to voice their opinion on topics before their local government makes important decisions that will affect their everyday lives.
Although the new law does give the public the right to speak at open meetings, the right is certainly not unrestricted. The new law also specifically states that “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.” Under HB 2840, members of the public do not have the right to speak both before and during the body’s consideration of the item.
In this regard, it is up to the governmental body to decide when members of the public may speak. Local governmental bodies are permitted to adopt reasonable rules with regard to public comments. If the public were given an untethered, absolute right to speak about any matter, for as long as they want, then this could effectively hijack or derail a public meeting where important business is to take place. Many cities have adopted reasonable rules such as time restrictions on how long members of the public may speak, restrictions on personal attacks, and rules regarding when public comments will be heard.
While a governmental body may adopt reasonable limits, the body cannot prohibit public criticism of the governmental body, “including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program, or service.” It is worth noting, however, that the new law specifically “does not apply to public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law.” This likely means that while citizens have the right to criticize the governing body, they do not have the right to make defamatory statements about individual members of the governing body such as city council members. It will be interesting to see how this new bill affects local government moving forward. Citizens now have the power to voice their opinions before decisions are made rather than being left to criticize decisions after the fact.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.