This article originally ran in the July 8 issue of Progress Times.
Mayor Norie Gonzalez Garza fulfilled another promise she made during her election campaign by increasing the citizen’s participation time during Mission City Council meetings from two to three minutes.
In every city council meeting, there is a designated time when public members can voice their concerns. House Bill 2840, which Texas lawmakers passed in 2019, states that government bodies must allow the public to speak on individual agenda items before a vote during any government meeting. Previously, community members could give comments only during the designated citizen’s participation agenda item or at a special public hearing, which is still an option. The law also states that speakers who require a translator must have at least twice the amount of time to talk to ensure non-English speakers have the same opportunity to address the governing body.
But in October 2021, Mission City Council unanimously voted to limit the public speaking time from three to two minutes. In a November 2021 interview with City Councilmember Jose Alberto “Beto” Vela, he said the council modified the speaking time to shorten the city council meetings as a whole, which can span about two to four hours on average. However, during her recent mayoral campaign, Gonzalez Garza said she wanted to increase the time back to three minutes because she felt two minutes was too short. At the June 27 meeting, the city council unanimously voted to increase the speaking time again.
HB 2840 also made it so that the government cannot censor criticism from the community they serve. However, Attorney Rick Salinas said he believes public comments have gone from critique to defamation. He spoke about it during the citizen’s participation portion of the June 27 meeting.
“It’s an area of concern for those that come up here and want to speak and they seem to be thinking that maybe they’re cloaked with some inability for people to sue or for [city council] to sue them based on these comments,” Salinas said. “These comments are exaggerated; they go beyond public criticism which is really what public comments are designed to be. It’s designed for me to come up here and address something with you like I am today, something of concern, it’s not meant to be a political soap box.”
Salinas, the son of former Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas, said he has experience with defamation and defamation lawsuits. Sill, the Texas Municipal League does not explicitly address the topic.
A post-session TML article on HB 2840 states: “the bill ‘does not apply to public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law.’ What public criticism is prohibited by law remains to be seen. Defamation would probably fall under that prohibition. In any case, a city should be able to enforce a decorum policy for public speakers, so long [as] it doesn’t prohibit criticism.”
“…they need to watch what they say up here in this pulpit because people like me are going to be watching,” Salinas said to the council. “We will file what we need to file when anyone gets up here and makes any comments that fall within that realm of defamation. Anything that goes beyond criticism or the need to address something with you about the overall benefit of the city, anything that goes beyond that, we will be watching. And I think that if it was any one of you…I would always be willing to entertain representing any one of you where that goes beyond what it should be.”
Salinas said Mission has a history of correctly handling public comments and citizen’s participation, but he believes the previous administration under former Mayor Armando “Doc” O’Caña let it get out of hand. The attorney said he hopes things will change and get back on track with the new administration under Gonzalez Garza.