Those who attend the Nov. 25 session of the commissioners court may be in for a legal show.
On the agenda will be – the agenda.
At issue is a change in the procedures passed by the Texas Legislature this year concerning procedures used to cover public comment at governmental meetings.
Previously, public comment at sessions such as the city council, commissioners court and the Goliad Independent School District, was allowed at the beginning of the session.
It usually appears fourth in line after the call to order, the invocation, the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. and the Texas flag.
While County Judge Pat Calhoun was in office, the public comment portion of the agenda was moved to the end of each agenda.
Governing bodies had the option of setting the time limit for each comment, usually from three to five minutes.
Those commenting are allowed to talk on any subject but, because members of the governing boards only can discuss items on the agenda, they are not allowed to respond.
Placing public comment at the end of an agenda transmitted the perception that board members would make their decisions and then listen to whatever the public had to say about their decisions somewhat as an afterthought
At its last session, the Texas Legislature changed everything.
Under the new template, specified in House Bill 2840, any citizen attending the session is allowed to speak on any item in the agenda as elected officials are debating it.
Although the commissioners court adopted the new regulations in August, subsequent agendas did not represent the change.
At its regular session Oct. 14, Goliad County Democratic Chair Charles Clapsaddle decided to test the new template.
Goliad County Judge Mike Bennett announced the court started to continue the session after the pledges of allegiance when Clapsaddle stood up and interrupted Bennett.
Bennett, standing up, forcible responded that Clapsaddle was speaking without being recognized.
Clapsaddle responded that he had the weight of the law behind him, an opinion that was reinforced by County Attorney Rob Baiamonte.
Clapsaddle then explained the new procedures.
The verbal altercation was upsetting enough that the court never got around to doing some of its routine business. It scheduled a special session Oct. 21.
On the agenda was “Compliance of rules of procedure, conduct and decorum at meetings of the Goliad County Commissioners Court with current statutes.”
On the table were copies of the agenda and placed for the public were two additional documents: A timeline of the court’s actions to comply with the new regulations and three-page, single-spaced guidelines for conduct and decorum at the court sessions.
Clapsaddle was among many who attended the session, including Goliad Sheriff Kirby Brumby and two deputies.
“What happened the other day is unfortunate, Mr. Clapsaddle,” Bennett said. “To my knowledge, we have never refused anyone the right to speak. But to interrupt is just flat rude. I was baffled. I didn’t know what was going on; I was set back on my heels.”
He then said that “the court would adhere to the rules that we, as the court, have adopted. We’re going to follow them to a ‘T.’”
Bennett said he favored tabling the public comment item on the agenda until Nov. 25, when attorney Bob Bass, of the Austin-based law firm Alison, Bass and Magee, would be present to advise the court on granting a tax abatement to the Caprock Company that is planning to erect a solar farm near Tulsita. Concurrently, he would offer his advice concerning the public comment rules.
The conflict between Clapsaddle and Bennett then switched to an argument between Bennett and Baiamonte, who said he doubted that Bass had ever said the court did not have to allow anyone to speak in public comment. “I don’t believe for a minute, not a minute, that Mr. Bass told you, that you do not have to have public comment,” Baiamonte said.
Bennett said that wasn’t what he said, only that a person could not speak until he was recognized.
But in the timeline, attorney Bass is quoted as saying, “In fact, the law does not require the court to allow public comment at all.”
Bass says one thing; Baiamonte disagrees.
The two – most likely complying with the necessity of proper decorum – will discuss the issue at 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 25.
Bill Clough is the Goliad editor at the Advance-Guard Press and can be reached at 361-645-2330, or at goliad@mySouTex.com.