“There are a ton of people in this room who want their voice to be heard about a variety of issues. If they believe they could say something to change the hearts and minds of you guys up here, I believe you guys have a responsibility to hear it,” Leander resident Tegan Retzer said Thursday, speaking against a proposal to change the public comment section being considered by the Leander City Council. “I’ve seen the hearts and minds of people on this dais change based on what people have to say into this microphone.”
The council voted unanimously to table the vote on the proposal until the next council meeting because copies of the proposal was not available to the public prior to the start of the meeting.
Council member Chris Czernek, the author of the proposal, apologized for the incident, stating it was not an effort to hide the language from the public. He said it took a long time to iron out the language with city legal staff, and he wasn't able to read and approve the final version until late Thursday because he was working.
Reporters received printed copies of the ordinance after the meeting was underway, but it still has not yet been posted on the city website under the agenda for public access.
Czernek said the proposal is meant to make council meetings more efficient and have them “run more like a business meeting.”
Austin resident Anna Nguyen criticized this priority, arguing, "When you run a business, the people who work for you, they work for you. You don't work for them. When you're an elected official, the people who elected you don't work for you - you work for them. So, elected office is nothing like running a business."
Council member Christine Sederquist argued the biggest cause of late meeting wasn't public comments but instead disorganized and poorly prepared agenda items without background information, which cause the council members to waste time trying just to figure out the intent of an agenda item.
Council member Michelle Stephenson also expressed concern about the proposal, arguing, “We set the agenda…The citizen comments are one of the only times the public gets to set the agenda.”
Leander Mayor Troy Hill argued the proposed changes weren’t unusual and several other regional cities, such as Georgetown and San Marcos, were already limiting discussion to only agenda items.
“If we’re doing something tonight that is going to affect you, you have the ability to address your government regarding what we’re doing. You also have the ability to reach out to any of us,” Hill said. “This is a business meeting. We’re here to do the people’s business. We’re here to do things that are on the agenda…We’re doing the same thing cities around us are doing.”
However, many other regional cities like Austin, Kyle and Cedar Park do allow all types of public comments. In fact, Cedar Park recently expanded its public comments section into two separate reoccurring items - one for agenda discussion and one for non-agenda discussion.
Hill also argued citizens could simply have a council member request the topic as an agenda item for future council sessions, noting the City Charter ensures any requested item must be included in the agenda.
Stephenson said she takes issue with council members being the "roadblock" to whether citizens can speak on an issue, arguing citizens could be silenced if no council member was willing to request the topic as an agenda item.
Czernek said he will be seriously considering this concern.
Proposal in practice
Hill argued nobody's ability to address their government was taken away by this proposal, particularly with agenda items affecting their homes or businesses.
However, in his immediate next statement, Hill criticized the idea of citizens continually voicing their concern over a vote at council meetings past the meeting where the vote was taken.
Notably, at the last council meeting, a large group of local residents and a few Cedar Park residents spoke against the council's controversial decision at the prior meeting to end room rentals at the library. Some of the group's members brought signs criticizing the decision and Hill himself over how he responded to critics.
"If you don't show up on that agenda item, and then three weeks later, every single meeting you're talking about something, I'm sorry but that's why we have agenda items. That's the time to address to those with your representatives for that at that meeting," Hill said. "But to continue to re-litigate that over and over again? I don't find that useful."
The council's vote on the library room rentals occurred at nearly midnight at the end of a marathon session. Several of the group's members said they were unable to attend or stay for the entire meeting due to conflicts with their family's needs or their early morning work schedule. The group said they had hoped to change the council's mind on the topic.
The council's meetings also regularly occur at the exact same time as Leander ISD school board meetings.
Under the proposal's changes, the group would have been required to sit in the back rows due to their signs and would not have been allowed to speak about the library because it wasn't on the agenda. Instead, they would to rely on a council member requesting it as an agenda item and then wait two weeks for the next council meeting.
If no council member was willing to request an agenda item for them, they would have no alternative for speaking about it at the public meeting.
Hill said during the meeting that regardless of how the rules turn out, he will field any questions or calls from the public at any time.