Commissioners adjusting meetings to comply with virus guidelines

HARLINGEN — Like many parts of the country, officials here are limiting public participation in City Commission meetings to comply with new federal guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

At City Hall, officials are limiting the number of people in City Commission meetings to 10 to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines aimed at reducing personal contact.

Now, officials are working to set up a telephone system to allow residents to participate in the meetings’ public comment periods, which are required under a new state amendment to the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“It’s about making our meetings accessible to the community,” city spokeswoman Irma Garza said Friday. “It’s about safety and accessibility. These are difficult times and everybody’s trying to work through them.”

As they plan their next regularly scheduled meeting set for April 1, officials are working to debut the phone system which would allow residents outside commission chambers to call commissioners to speak up on topics before officials cast their votes.

Officials plan to broadcast the meetings via live-streamed video appearing on the city’s website and Facebook page.

“Additional measures will be taken for the meeting of April 1 to allow citizens to participate in the public comment portion of the meeting by calling in rather than being present,” Garza stated.

Public meeting changes

On Wednesday, city officials unveiled a glimpse of the changes surrounding local government meetings.

“Following the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control, the Texas Department of State Health Services and Gov. Greg Abbott’s suspension of certain open-meeting statutes to reduce in-person meetings that assemble large groups of people, Harlingen will limit room capacity to only 10 people,” Garza stated in a press release this past week.

In a surreal setting, the roomy commission chambers, which usually include about 80 chairs for audience members, was set up with 20 chairs, each separated by six-foot radiuses.

Along the commission’s board table, Mayor Chris Boswell sat with Commissioners Richard Uribe, Frank Puente, Ruben de la Rosa, Michael Mezmar and Victor Leal, all separated by about six-feet distances.

Facing the commission, City Manager Dan Serna sat with Assistant City Attorney Allison Bastian and a secretary.

Meanwhile, Garza, technology technician Sergio Mujica and a video broadcaster worked to set up the meeting’s live-stream broadcast.

Before the meeting opened, Boswell told residents, who sat in the room’s scattered chairs, officials planned to comply with the new guidelines limiting gatherings to 10 people.

“Everybody else unfortunately will have to clear the room,” Boswell told residents who walked into City Hall’s second-floor lobby.

As commissioners opened the meeting’s public comment period, Serna opened chamber doors to ask residents if they planned to speak before the commission.

Residents entering chambers to speak at the podium included former City Commissioner Robert Leftwich and attorney Ron Lozano.

Citizen reaction

As she waited in the lobby to present commissioners with an overview of the coronavirus, Cameron County Health Administrator Esmeralda Guajardo hailed officials’ efforts to comply with the new federal guidelines.

“I think it’s great,” she said in an interview. “Officials are elected to lead and lead by example. I know it’s an inconvenience to the citizens but this is how we’re living today — this current moment in our lives.”

Gerald Gathright, executive director of the Harlingen Boys and Girls Club, praised officials for taking precautions.

“I think they’re being wise and taking precautions,” Gathright said in an interview. “Nobody wants to be the reason someone got sick. That’s the way life is for right now.”

Meanwhile, businesswoman Danni Cantu called it a step aimed at preventing “tragedy.”

“It’s a good measure to prevent a tragedy like they couldn’t prevent in China,” she said.