The Leander City Council voted Thursday to block further council discussion of their new, controversial public comments rules using a procedural maneuver, bringing into question their repeated claims the new rules would not silence anyone.
Council member Christine Sederquist, who took issue with the new rules, intentionally voted for them at the last council meeting to ensure she would be allowed under council rules to bring it back up for reconsideration at Thursday's meeting. She put particular emphasis on how questions still remain about how the new rules will be implemented.
“At the point that we had voted on it, a lot of the issues in it were unclear and it was late at night,” Sederquist said. “I think that in all fairness it does need to be brought back.”
The procedural move, which Council members Sederquist and Michelle Stephenson voted against, cut Sederquist off from being able to continue speaking and will now prevent it from being brought back up for potentially 6 months.
Notably, Leander city staff were still working Thursday to determine how many significant aspects of the new rules will be put into action.
In addition decorum rules limiting disruptive behavior and requiring people carrying signs to sit in the back, the new public comments limit all non-agenda public comments to a maximum of 15 minutes, divided among speakers on a first-come, first-serve basis, and reduce agenda item comments from 3 minutes per person to 2 minutes per person if more than 10 people sign up for the same agenda item.
The majority of the new rules were implemented in a flurry of last-minute meetings at the end of the last meeting and staff was not directed on several issues by the council. Because constitutional law weighs heavily in the favor of First Amendment rights, the lack of clear policy could pose a litigation risk for the city if someone is prevented from speaking without a defined policy.
The most significant area in question is non-agenda item speaks. The council's new rules mandate each of these speakers are given at least 1 minutes to speak, so the city would be forced to cutoff all additional speakers after 15 people sign up. If the city simply cuts off these additional speakers without a policy, citizens could see themselves repeatedly unable to address the council if too many people sign up before them, much less if a group sought to exploit the process.
A suggestion discussed by the council at the last meeting but not implemented was putting these additional speakers at the front of the line for the next council meeting. However, even this process raises questions about how the city would accurately track this and whether it could create a wait list for addressing the council, particularly since just 30 people signing up at one meeting would mean any future speakers would have to wait two council meetings, or a month, before they would have a chance to speak.
During the previous debates about the rules, Leander Mayor Troy Hill repeatedly reassured audience members that regardless of what rules the council adopted, they could always reach out to a council member to have them request discussion of a particular item be included in the next council agenda. He said that despite oversee the agenda as mayor, the city's rules prevent him from being able to block this type of request.
However, when Sederquist asked the very next morning for the item to be brought back up, Hill immediately pushed back in an email and indicated he wouldn't include the item.
"You did not ask for a clarification on anything at the time, so for now it's settled. Our agendas are full until after the New Year. I will entertain it then," Hill responded in an email.
Ultimately, the item was included in Thursday's agenda.
When Sederquist began to explain during Thursday's meeting why she thought there was merit to re-opening discussion and figuring out the unanswered questions about its implementation, Hill immediately interrupted her and questioned city legal staff about whether she was allowed to speak on the item, arguing she was violating the rules by delving into the original agenda item.
Notably, the 15-minute limit Sederquist was speaking about when interrupted by Hill was only added during the last minute revisions passed by the council, and the original agenda had instead sought to ban all non-agenda item discussion.
Leander City Attorney Paige Saenz explained Sederquist could speak because she was talking about the merits for the council to reconsider the item.
Immediately in response to this answer, Hill immediately called for a vote, a maneuver that would end discussion on the item.
"Really?" Sederquist asked.
"Really," Hill said.
"If you're going to silence me in here, you're not going to like what I say outside," Sederquist said.
In back-to-back 5-to-2 votes with Sederquist and Stephenson opposing, the rest of the council swiftly voted to bring the item for a vote and then vote to down further consideration of the issue.
"It's ridiculous that this council won't even let a description of why I thought it should be reconsidered go through," Sederquist said. "If you look back at the past council, anytime somebody would try to call [a vote], it never passed because we had enough respect for each other to see each other out."
Hill defended the vote, arguing Sederquist did not ask for clarification at the prior meeting. He also argued the new rules weren't unusual compared to other regional cities.
"After a few months, if there's tweaks we need to make here or there, we can do it as a one off," Hill said. "We need to move forward as a council. We keep re-litigating things over and over...This is done. If we need to go back, we can do it later."
Council member Chris Czernek, who authored the new rules, argued they had thoroughly debated the item at the last meeting. Czernek said he is very open to modifying the rules in the future. He said wants to see the rules in effect for a few months to see how they work and then come back to address any issues that arise.
The test run of the new rules at Thursday's meeting saw minimal difference from prior council meetings except for the contentious debate on the rules themselves. Since only one person signed up for non-agenda items and only a handful spoke on agenda items, no speaker had a reduction to their speaking time.
Citizens comments were also notably less divisive Thursday with several citizens, including some critics of the new rules, using their time to thank the council for tackling such difficult issues in service of the city and for having city staff better help residents understand how to sign up to speak. All of the speakers on the public comment item asked the council to either drop the limit on non-agenda items or increase the time to prevent potentially blocking people from speaking.