Kathi Bliss recently wrote about the circus in the Commissioners Court of late. While I don’t completely agree with her assessment, I’m not here to debate her points. Instead I want to point out the Ringmaster’s draconian attempts to put the circus back into the three rings. In that attempt, Judge Tom Bonn is squelching the right of the public to speak.
Most of the “Rules of Procedure, Conduct, and Decorum For All Commissioner’s Court Meetings” (having that many words in the title gives you a hint of what’s to come) are not in violation of Texas law or Robert’s Rules of Order. But they are rules that only a lawyer could love.
Let’s start with the mere heft of them. Seventeen pages. Yep, that’s what Commissioner Fred Buchholtz (who is bringing it before the court) and Ron Heggemeier think is needed. The Texas Association of Counties (TAC) has a model Rules of Decorum that is a mere four pages. I’ve presented this model to the court two times: once during a meeting and once by email.
The majority of counties in Texas use the TAC version. A simple Google search, “Texas commissioners rules of decorum,” will give you a long list. Of course, each county has made some modifications to fit their county. Apparently that’s too simple for the Ringmaster in Caldwell County.
I want to look at three of these rules. There is much more in this document that is silly and over the top. Download it and read it for yourself.
Article II 2.00 (C) – If any Commissioner or the County Judge is going to abstain from voting on an Agenda Item they shall announce such intention as soon as the Agenda Item is called and shall refrain from making any motions or seconds and from a discussion of the item.
In all the years I’ve attended public meetings and hearings, I have never heard of such a thing. How about “If any Commissioners is going to vote NO…” What happens if after hearing all the discussion, a Commissioner then decides to abstain? Is he prevented from doing so? What if a Commissioner is thinking about abstaining, but needs more information? Is he prevented from speaking? The only purpose I can see in this provision is to control votes and to control the free speech of Commissioners.
Article IV 4.02 – Caldwell County citizens will have the opportunity to study the Agenda Items and submit comments on a Caldwell County Agenda Comment Form anytime before 10:00 a.m. Friday immediately before the next Regular meeting. These Comments Form will be duplicated and shared with all members of Commissioners Court and pertinent staff members.(emphasis in original)
4.03 – The completed Agenda Comment Form once received shall become the property of Commissioners Court and shall be viewed, shared, kept or disposed of according to the law and instructions from the Commissioners Court. (emphasis added).
Rules for the Court meetings were on the October 24 agenda, I spoke during Public Comment, the only time allowed for any type of comment. My comments didn’t line up with what was presented during the agenda discussion. Why not? I didn’t know what was going to be presented.
Let’s take just one agenda item from Monday’s meeting, “23. Discussion/Action concerning Tax Assessor, Mary Vicki Gonzales resignation – Commissioner Roland.” Now how can you comment on this if you have no idea what it’s about?
Unless all the background documents are going to be provided to the public, this in effect shuts off public comment.
How will these Comment Forms be accepted? Can we email them? Fax them? Or will the Judge require that they be brought to his office? Will they be available online?
Article VIII 8.01 – All testimony given to the Commissioners Court which concern any real estate matter which is described directly or indirectly in the Caldwell County Development Ordinance (adopted on January 18, 2011) shall be given under oath. This requirement applies to the Applicant and/or of the applicant’s representatives, consultants, or speakers. (i.e. attorneys, surveyors, engineers, environmental consultants, etc.) (emphasis added)
8.05 – Commissioners Court reserves the right to request that any testimony be given under oath. (emphasis in original)
Whatever could be the purpose of this? Has there been a rash of lying about the Development Ordinance before the Court? Have Applicants made false statements on their applications? What exactly is meant by testimony? (As I said only a lawyer could love this document.)
Why are all these rules and regulations needed? I submit, not because the court meetings have become unruly, but because dissent and opposition is not wanted. Judge Bonn claims to want orderly and shorter meetings (take a look at this week’s agenda – shorter meeting indeed).
The real rub began during the September 26 public hearing on the budget. Yes, people were loud and voiced their support for various speakers and commissioners. During the public comment time, only the Judge was allowed to respond and he was often rude, angry, and dismissive of opposition.
Judge Bonn doesn’t want orderly meetings. He wants silent meetings. He does not want to have to answer to the public on the record and he wants to maintain deniability.
It appears the Ringmaster will go to any length to tame to the tiger of dissent.
Which provision in the new Court Rules bothers you the most?