Members of the public recently criticized County Judge Barbara Shaw for her decision to move public comments to the end of the meeting agendas without first consulting with the rest of the court.
The item was placed on the agenda by County Commissioner Shelby Dupnik, but before Dupnik addressed the court, Bernice Stimson expressed her own public comments on the topic.
“I would like to applaud Commissioner Dupnik for placing this matter – the citizens to be heard – on the agenda,” Stimson said. “All of the commissioners should follow his example.”
Stimson expressed support for moving public comments back to the front end of the meetings, instead of at the end. She said the recent decision to change this had infringed upon the public’s First Amendment right to free speech.
“The presiding officer has arbitrarily, without the vote of the commissioners, moved the citizens’ comments from the beginning to the end,” Stimson said. “It appears to be an attempt to prohibit citizens from participating in the discussion.”
Stimson presented the results from a survey of neighboring counties that found that five of the six neighboring counties routinely place public comments at the beginning of the meeting. Six of the six allow for five minutes of speaking, instead of the current limit of three minutes enforced at Karnes County Commissioners Court meetings.
“I urge all of the members of Commissioners Court to support moving Citizens to be Heard from the last item on the agenda back to its original position on the agenda after the pledge of allegiance,” Stimson said.
County Clerk Carol Swize interrupted Stimson to let her know her three minutes of speaking time had expired.
Commissioner James Rosales made a motion to extend Stimson’s speaking time, and Stimson continued with no objection voiced by any member of the court.
Stimson urged the court to also extend the speaking time for members of the public from 3 minutes to 5 minutes.
“You have moved us to the end of the agenda in the hopes that we will tire and leave before being heard,” Stimson said.
Commissioner Dupnik said several people had contacted him regarding the decision to move public comments to the end of the meeting agendas.
“Mrs. Hall, last week, made a very eloquent and very strong and profound statement about this – about where the comments on the agenda were,” Dupnik said. “It has always been at the forefront.”
“Some people want to come just to speak and leave and they are having to wait through the whole meeting and that is not, to me, respectful to any citizen or taxpayer,” Dupnik said.
Public comments, however, should never be allowed as a forum for people to attack one another, Dupnik emphasized.
County Judge Barbara Shaw said she made the change to help move county business forward more quickly.
“The heart of Commissioners Court is county business,” Shaw said. “So much stuff that comes in here has nothing to do with county business.”
“Freedom of speech is anywhere,” Shaw said. “You can picket outside the rooms. You can do anything. You can picket anywhere or do anything like that. In here we are supposed to take care of county business.”
Commissioner Tracey Schendel expressed support for moving public comments back to the front of the meetings.
“I think it ought to be at the front of the meeting,” Schendel said. “Get it over with, and then we can go on.”
Commissioner James Rosales then made a motion to move public comments back to the beginning of meetings.
“We have a lot of things to do,” Commissioner Pete Jauer said. “What do y’all want? We can’t accommodate everybody and make everybody happy.”
Shaw expressed concerns related to keeping order in the meetings.
“But then do we just violate all the open meetings acts and just say, ‘Okay, everybody just talk together – how do y’all want this done?” Shaw asked.
Dupnik read from the courts own rules of decorum, reminding the court that there are provisions within their own rules that allow the presiding officer to keep order during in the meetings.
“This has been moved to the back and it has created controversy,” Dupnik said. “I am tired of so much controversy in the county. We have got bigger fish to fry than worry about putting somebody to the back.”
Commissioner James Rosales also expressed support for moving public comments back near the top of the meeting agendas, and he said it would take the same amount of time, regardless of where it was placed.
Rosales said it should be the option of anyone who makes a public comment to choose whether to speak at the beginning of the meeting, or to speak later when the agenda item they wish to address comes up.
Commissioner Schendel seconded the motion made by Rosales.
Shaw called for all in favor to say “aye.” The motion apparently carried, although it was unclear which members of the court voted in favor. County Clerk Carol Swize said that when she reviewed the recording, Judge Shaw asked who was in favor, but did not ask who was opposed. Also, Shaw did not say whether or not the motion carried. However, since no one spoke up to oppose, Swize said that she recorded the action of the court as carrying on a 5-0 vote.