The Mission City Council had second thoughts last week about a decision to limit public comment.
Texas law mandates that Mission allow members of the public to address the City Council during meetings. The law, however, doesn’t specify how long members of the public may speak.
Mission originally allowed people to speak for three minutes. In 2021, when a woman started asking questions about corruption and potential conflicts of interest, the City Council limited public comment to just two minutes.
The City Council reversed that decision last week.
“It’s a citizen’s only opportunity to say their piece,” said City Councilman Abiel Flores. “So I thought it’d be a good idea to move it back to what we had before.”
While the concept is simple — citizens should be able to share their opinions with elected officials during meetings — public comment remains a perennial source of controversy in the Rio Grande Valley.
McAllen stopped recording public comment after people started using the time to grandstand. Pharr eliminated public comment altogether when a self-styled activist started lambasting the City Commission and posting his monologues on YouTube. And members of the Edinburg City Council sat through more than three hours of public comment last year, when they considered an ordinance to “Outlaw Abortion and Declare Edinburg a Sanctuary for the Unborn.”
While public comments occasionally upset elected officials, attorneys typically advise them not to respond because they’re prohibited from discussing topics that don’t appear on the meeting agenda.
Few people actually show up for public comment in Mission.
In 2020, the City Council listened to 17 public comments, according to minutes kept by the City Secretary’s Office. The City Council listened to another 21 public comments in 2021.
Public comment became more popular in 2022 as the pandemic receded and the mayoral election approached. From Jan. 1 to June 21, the City Council listened to 22 public comments.
In Mission, the controversy started during August 2021, when Irma Flores Lopez, a former member of the Mission Housing Authority board, started using public comment to ask uncomfortable questions about corruption and potential conflicts of interest.
“As a proud city of Mission resident, I’m so embarrassed of the continuous conflicts of interest that are going on,” Flores Lopez told the City Council on Aug. 9, 2021. “We, the voters, know what is going on.”
Flores Lopez also brought up a controversial energy-savings contract between Mission and Performance Services Inc., which is part of a major public corruption investigation.
In October, the City Council voted 5-0 to reduce the time allowed for public comments.
“I think that was just a way of suppressing the voters,” said Mike Silva, the president of the Mission Fire Fighters Association, who frequently speaks during public comment. “And suppressing the voices of the taxpayers.”
Flores Lopez agreed.
“With the two-minute time frame, you don’t have enough time to say what you want to say,” Flores Lopez said. “I think you need three minutes to give input to the City Council.”
Mayor Norie Gonzalez Garza, who served on the City Council when public comment was reduced to two minutes, said that she didn’t oppose the decision because the City Council had already reached a consensus on the issue. After she became mayor, though, Gonzalez Garza worked to reverse the decision.
“I think it’s great to see that Norie is willing to hear people out,” Silva said.
Any attempt to limit public comment is a slap in the face to citizens, Silva said, adding that elected officials should listen to the people they represent.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Silva said. “And I think everyone’s opinion should be respected.”