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OWLS upset over public comment changes

20120411-HidalgoCountySealEDINBURG — A shift in the arrangement of the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court open forum has upset residents who speak weekly to the court about county business.

Previously, the open forum was held after the court approved its consent agenda near the start of the meeting. Now, as of about three weeks ago, commenters must wait until the end of the meeting, after all other county business, excluding matters under executive session like litigation.

“It’s never easy to take criticism, but we feel they should be open to hear our concerns,” said Virginia Townsend, a Mission resident and member of the Objective Watchers of the Legal System (OWLS).

 

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia this week said the change was made to accommodate television viewers who watch the court recording Tuesday at 10 p.m. on KMBH.

“What we were experiencing was a number of people complaining that they couldn’t see county business” because of items like open forum, proclamations and honoring of community members, Garcia said Wednesday. “That does cut into some of the time. We’re trying to balance things out.”

The group said the change hinders their work in reminding the court to be transparent and mindful of how they spend taxpayer money. They said their efforts have also previously stopped the court from taking action until more information about an item is given.

“We do more background work into agendas than they do,” said OWL member Fern McClaugherty of Edinburg. “They should treat us as an asset not a liability.”

Garcia said the group and general public may visit with the court’s administrator, Valde Guerra, to discuss any concerns on an agenda item. Their comments could also be included in the commissioners’ agenda packets for their review.

“We value everyone’s opinions,” he said. “We’re not trying to do anything to frustrate any citizen.”

The offer to submit comments to Guerra is a tough sell for the group. If agendas are published on Friday evening, the group says it only has a single working day to research items to present any concerns to the court.

“What we do kind of makes them look good,” McClaugherty said.

The OWLS said on a number of occasions, they’ve provided questions and concerns the court or its administrators hadn’t thought of before taking an issue to a vote. Their comments during open forum have affected votes that were ultimately postponed until all answers were found.

And while Garcia said the court elected to move the open forum to benefit the public watching at night, the OWLS say the public who contact them about issues and concerns are likewise watching to be sure the group speaks to the court.

“Now people can’t wait as long to see if their question or concern was answered and discussed and considered,” McClaugherty said.

Frank Traver, another OWL, told the court during open forum on Tuesday that the comments weren’t included in the televised meeting.

It’s unclear if a recent meeting didn’t include the open forum, but Garcia said he watched Tuesday’s meeting to ensure the public’s comments were included.

The county spends $3,000 each week to televise the commissioners’ court and Hidalgo County Drainage District meetings on KMBH. Garcia said he was encouraged that the number of people watching the meetings at night prove that the county’s efforts to reach the public are successful.

“If we have enough people calling to complain we know a lot of people are watching,” he said.

Traver, who wrote a letter to the editor included in this week’s issue of the Progress Times, said the move appeared to be a way to silence the public and OWLS from commenting on high-dollar expenditures and projects the court is making like the potential construction of a new courthouse or a tollway system. The open forum is the only way the public has the ability to offer any input on items before they’re voted on.

“It essentially has become a closed forum,” Traver said. “Apparently the commissioners don't want any obstructions - that is public opinion - in the way of their preconceived plans for doing what they please.”

Garcia maintains his administration is devoted to being transparent. By creating committee advisory groups for drainage and courthouse activities – both which feature OWLS as members – along with separate precinct meetings to inform the public about ongoing activities, the public is getting informed and offered a chance to speak to county leaders about concerns.

“We encourage all participation,” he said.

KURV radio personality Davis Rankin, in an interview with Garcia this week about the switch, suggested the court keep the open forum at the beginning of the meeting, but edit it to go after all other county business as a way to compromise. On Wednesday, Garcia said he was interested in the idea and would pursue it with county staff.

their efforts have also previously stopped the court from taking action until more information about an item is given.

“We do more background work into agendas than they do,” said OWL member Fern McClaugherty of Edinburg. “They should treat us as an asset not a liability.”

Garcia said the group and general public may visit with the court’s administrator, Valde Guerra, to discuss any concerns on an agenda item. Their comments could also be included in the commissioners’ agenda packets for their review.

“We value everyone’s opinions,” he said. “We’re not trying to do anything to frustrate any citizen.”

The offer to submit comments to Guerra is a tough sell for the group. If agendas are published on Friday evening, the group says it only has a single working day to research items to present any concerns to the court.

“What we do kind of makes them look good,” McClaugherty said.

The OWLS said on a number of occasions, they’ve provided questions and concerns the court or its administrators hadn’t thought of before taking an issue to a vote. Their comments during open forum have affected votes that were ultimately postponed until all answers were found.

And while Garcia said the court elected to move the open forum to benefit the public watching at night, the OWLS say the public who contact them about issues and concerns are likewise watching to be sure the group speaks to the court.

“Now people can’t wait as long to see if their question or concern was answered and discussed and considered,” McClaugherty said.

Frank Traver, another OWL, told the court during open forum on Tuesday that the comments weren’t included in the televised meeting.

It’s unclear if a recent meeting didn’t include the open forum, but Garcia said he watched Tuesday’s meeting to ensure the public’s comments were included.

The county spends $3,000 each week to televise the commissioners’ court and Hidalgo County Drainage District meetings on KMBH. Garcia said he was encouraged that the number of people watching the meetings at night prove that the county’s efforts to reach the public are successful.

“If we have enough people calling to complain we know a lot of people are watching,” he said.

Traver, who wrote a letter to the editor included in this week’s issue of the Progress Times, said the move appeared to be a way to silence the public and OWLS from commenting on high-dollar expenditures and projects the court is making like the potential construction of a new courthouse or a tollway system. The open forum is the only way the public has the ability to offer any input on items before they’re voted on.

“It essentially has become a closed forum,” Traver said. “Apparently the commissioners don't want any obstructions - that is public opinion - in the way of their preconceived plans for doing what they please.”

Garcia maintains his administration is devoted to being transparent. By creating committee advisory groups for drainage and courthouse activities – both which feature OWLS as members – along with separate precinct meetings to inform the public about ongoing activities, the public is getting informed and offered a chance to speak to county leaders about concerns.

“We encourage all participation,” he said.

KURV radio personality Davis Rankin, in an interview with Garcia this week about the switch, suggested the court keep the open forum at the beginning of the meeting, but edit it to go after all other county business as a way to compromise. On Wednesday, Garcia said he was interested in the idea and would pursue it with county staff.

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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