Leander City Council

Leander Council votes to restrict non-agenda public comments, add decorum rules

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The Leander City Council  will cap public comments on non-agenda items, which typically occur at the beginning of  council meetings, to a maximum of 15 minutes, divided among all speakers on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The council voted 5-to-2 to approve the controversial ordinance amendment and implement decorum rules for the public.

Public comments on agenda items won't be capped. However, if 10 or more citizens sign up for an agenda item, their speaking time will shrink from 3 minute each to 2 minutes each.

In practice, the two changes will result in negligible difference from current meetings if only a few people sign up to speak. However, the more people want to speak at meetings, the more restrictions these changes will impose. 

The council heard from 14 speakers Thursday, primarily on non-agenda items, for approximately 32 minutes. Under the new rules, the speaking time would have been halved and each speaker would have only been allowed slightly more than 1 minute each.

Another example of how the changes will impact discussion is the recent meeting where citizens spoke to the council in favor of Leander's participation in the Cap Metro system. That public debate lasted nearly two hours. Under the changes, each speaker would have had 1 less minute to speak, cumulatively reducing their total speaking time by 40 minutes. 

The changes are still unsettled even with Thursday's vote. Two council members voted for it but said they would like to see the restrictions removed in the future.

Council member Christine Sederquist said she opposes the changes but voted for it so she would be allowed, under the council's Rules of Procedures, to bring it back up for reconsideration at the next meeting, particularly since she wants to address unresolved questions about how the changes will be implemented.

New but unclear rules

The ordinances received a flurry of last-minute amendments just prior to be being passed, leaving several aspects of the changes unclear, even to city staff.

The 15-minute limit will be divided into 3 minute increments for each speaker. However, city staff is still working to determine how more than 15 speakers will be handled. Council members indicated an interest in putting people unable to speak due to the limit at the front of the line for the next meeting, which occurs two weeks later.

Czernek was asked about concerns a group could abuse the time limit to stifle critics or dominate a debate by filling all slots for a particular meeting. He said he hadn't consider the possibility and feels "it would not be a win for the city" if it was exploited. However, he argued citizens could still reach out to a council member on their own time or request an agenda item for the next meeting.

Recurring non-agenda speakers are the most impacted by the changes, particularly Leander Historical Preservation Commission Chair Karen Thompson. At almost every meeting, Thompson gives the council a Leander history presentation, and often struggles to complete it before the 3-minute limit. Under the new rules, she could have as little as 1 minute to present.

Leander Mayor Troy Hill and Council member Chris Czernek, who authored the bill with city legal staff, said they recognize the issue and plan to create a specific, recurring agenda item for Community Interest items, which could range from Thompson's presentations to Girl Scouts addressing the council.

The exact criteria for being allowed on this portion of the agenda  is unknown and likely up the council's discretion, although each item would have to be submitted before the agenda is posted.

When questioned whether creating a special agenda item to resolve the issue indicated a flaw with the rules, Czernek argued Thompson, being a board member, meant it was no different than other board presentations.

In response to the rest of the question, Czernek said "I don't really know I have a great comment for that, except get your comment card in. I do believe people will not abuse this." 

Another change will require citizens to submit their in-person comment cards 15 minutes before the start of a council meeting if they want to speak. City staff was also directed by council to create an online method for submitting these cards.

However, since the new process is first-come, first-serve, questions remain on when online submission will open before meetings and how city staff will track online and in-person submissions simultaneously. 

Hotly debated, now limited

Czernek said the amendment is meant to make council meetings more efficient, less divisive and better run like "a business meeting."

Hill concurred, arguing the majority of their work is making decisions on how city money is spent. He also argued other regional cities are "all over the map" with public comments but these types of restrictions are not uncommon, pointing to the Williamson County Commissioners Court.

Council member Jason Shaw said he voted for the restrictions as a "reset" meant to give people time to calm down on the divisive debating and give council time to find a new City Manager and improve city processes. He said he would like the issue brought back and the restrictions potentially lifted.

"I struggle with this item. I've gotten in fights with good friends about this item. I want to hear what you have to say," Shaw said. "But we have to start running this city. This city has been mismanaged for over a decade and we have to fix it."

Council members Michelle Stephenson and Kathryn Pantalion-Parker, the two votes against the changes, argued public input is important and echoed other speakers in arguing citizen comments were not the primary cause of meetings running late.

"We are the closest form of government to the people here, and they deserve this chance to be able to come to us face to face and tell us what is bothering them," Stephenson said. 

The public comments on the proposal were overwhelmingly opposed to the changes.

"There are rights that are inalienable that predate any form of government and exist independent of any form of government," John Handy Bosma said. "If you were to take one action...that would be most anti-Texan thing to do, it would be to pass a provision stopping individuals from remonstrat[ing] against their government. The State of Texas exists because the leaders ... said Texans have a right to remonstrate against their government."

Leander resident Carl Norman said, "This is the people's business Mr. Czernek. You're here for us, not the other way around. Yes, conduct the business. But it's our business and we have a say.

Several speakers called the changes are "a solution in search of problem." Czerbej said the changes give a finite amount of time for non-agenda items that can be budgeted for while keeping the focus on being "a business meeting." He said he understands critics' objections to limits but feels it is difficult to run a meeting without them. He said he feels the 15-minute limit is a reasonable compromise with the proposal's original plan to not allow any non-agenda comments.

Czernek said he is optimistic the amendment will increase civility and positively improve  council meetings.

"Regardless of how many minutes people have to speak, I still intend to listen to them," Czernek said.

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