|At the May 18th Township Board of Directors Meeting, the Board reviewed and considered changes to its Public Comment policy. At the conclusion of discussion, the Board tabled this matter to the June 28th meeting.
The Woodlands Township Board of Directors has established guidelines for participation in its public meetings. An agenda item for Public Comment is listed at the beginning of each of the Township’s regular meeting agendas. All persons wishing to address the Board must first sign the Speaker’s Roster. The current guidelines are part of the “Board policy regarding meeting time and format, public comment process, seating of the Board, Officer elections and Committee Appointments”, which is attached for reference.
The Texas Open Meetings Act does not require that a governing body provide an opportunity for the public to speak at a meeting, except in the case of a public hearing and certain circumstances where state law requires public comment to be allowed. If the governing body chooses to allow public comment, they may adopt reasonable rules regulating the number of speakers and length of time allowed, provided that the rules apply equally to all members of the public.
While other aspects of these guidelines have changed, the Board has held a single public comment session at the beginning of each meeting since 2012. In addition, since 2009, the public comment period has been limited to three minutes per speaker, nine minutes per subject matter, and 30 minutes total. From time-to-time, the Board has waived its policy in order to extend the public comment period, and this has either been accomplished through the Chair’s acclamation or through a vote of the Board.
At the April 20 Board meeting, Director Rieser requested that the Board review the public comment policy in May.
As noted, there is no statutory provision that requires the Board to allow public comment. The Board has the ability to place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speakers; however, the Board should be careful to apply the rules equally and consistently for all who sign up to comment.
When discussing changes to the Board policy, a few matters to take into consideration include, but are not limited to:
Whatever policy is chosen; the Board should make reasonable effort to ensure that the policy is followed to avoid the appearance of bias toward or against a speaker or topic.
- What are the Board’s objectives for public input and Board deliberation?
- Is there a need change the timing or process for public comment?
Waiving the policy should be handled carefully, as routinely waiving the policy may undermine the Board’s ability to enforce the policy or may result in the perception of bias.
If a change is made to allow public comment at the beginning and end of the meeting, a process should be put in place to determine the basis for holding comment at the beginning versus the end.
- Will the Chair be tasked with cutting off public comment when the limits of 9 minute per subject matter or 30 minutes total are met and deferring the remaining speakers to the end of the meeting?
- Will speakers be given the ability to choose to address the Board at the beginning or end or both?
- Will speakers be taken in the order in which they signed up, or will priority be given to those who speak on agenda-related matters (vs. general announcements or items not on the agenda) to allow these comments to be heard prior to Board’s deliberation on agenda-related matters?
- How may the perception of a speaker be impacted if he or she arrives at the start of the meeting must wait until the end of the meeting to speak?
If the Board desires to make a change to its policy on public comment, direction can be given to staff, who will draft the changes and place this item on a future agenda for formal approval of any policy revisions.