SAN BENITO — As officials across the state work to interpret a new law requiring governments to give the public a voice during their meetings, school board members here are standing by their decision to deny two residents a chance to speak up.
On Tuesday night, residents Chuy Aguilera and Rosalinda Garcia tried to speak up regarding topics not included on the meeting’s agenda.
A new amendment to the Texas Open Meetings Act — House Bill 2840 — requires the school board to give residents the right to voice their concerns, Aguilera and Garcia said yesterday.
“I was denied the right to public comment to express my opinion,” Garcia, who for years has voiced her concerns during public comment periods, said.
Aguilera was blunt.
“They’re trying to shut us down,” Aguilera, who’s also spoken up during public comment periods for years, said.
However, the new law specifically requires governments to give the public a chance to speak on issues addressed as items on meetings’ agendas before they go to a vote, board member Angel Mendez said.
“At a board meeting, the board shall hear all persons who desire to make comments to the board regarding agenda items for that meeting,” the district’s policy states.
However, the Texas Association of School Boards states district officials could allow residents to also speak out on topics not included on a meeting’s agenda.
Before the new law, authored by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, went into effect Sept. 1, the school board offered residents a chance to speak up on topics not addressed as agenda items — either at the beginning or end of meetings.
“The board may continue, but is not required, to receive public comments concerning subject matters not posted on an agenda,” TASB states in its recommendations to school boards.
In Harlingen and San Benito, city officials continue to give residents a chance to speak up on topics appearing on their agendas as well as on other issues.
The spirit of the law
Joe Rodriguez argues the San Benito school board’s decision to limit public comment to agenda items violates the spirit of the new law.
“They use it as an excuse to tell people they can’t talk,” Rodriguez, a former councilman in North Texas, said. “They don’t like the criticism.”
Now, Mendez said school board members might review their policy.
“I understand where the constituency is coming from,” he said. “We can go back and discuss it. It will be up to the board if we add to it.”
Room for criticism?
Garcia said the new law raises questions.
“There is some confusion,” she said.
Under the new law, governments can’t stop residents from criticizing them, according to TASB.
“A board must not prohibit public criticism of the board, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedures, program or service,” TASB states in its recommendations.
Mendez questions whether the board’s policy slams the door on criticism.
“Is it something we’re giving up as a whole — any form of constructive criticism?” he asked.
Like Rodriguez, Garcia and Aguilera are calling on board members to open the public comment period to include topics not included on meetings’ agendas.
“They interpret the law however they want,” Aguilera said. “They just use it to their convenience. You can’t silence people just like that.”