Political navel-gazers may quibble over whether the United States is a constitutional republic or a democracy — the Framers were less discriminating about it, more concerned about making government function with checks and balances observed to guard against authoritarianism — but there can be no doubt democracy remains the heart of our form of governance. Which is why we’re hopeful local governing entities are fully committed to living up to a new state law whose primary mission ensures citizens are permitted to offer their two cents before any issue is decided — not afterward.
Common sense? You bet. Yet over time we have attended the occasional public meeting where the public was permitted to comment on an issue only after it was decided, which understandably marginalizes and outrages some members of the public and fosters distrust of elected leaders. Such concerns go to the heart of HB 2840, which passed the Texas House last spring by a 138-3 vote (with local state Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal numbering among the majority). The vote was unanimous in the Senate. Signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, the law went into effect last month.
“It’s kind of like going to the Supreme Court, getting the ruling and then trying to convince them,” state Rep. Terry Canales, the bill’s author, said of such abuses committed by governing entities. “It doesn’t work that way. It’s exactly what we’re doing right (in the Legislature). There’s public commenting, public testimony, before you consider the bill, the measure. What this does is increase transparency and allow people meaningful input before a city council, a school board.”
Canales, a Democrat and dedicated champion of governmental transparency, authored the bill at the urging of a conservative group called Objective Watchers of the Legal System — OWLS, for short — after the group complained of governmental subdivisions in South Texas discouraging public input on public issues. The new law thus requires city councils, school boards, county commissioners courts and other entities to provide for commenting “before or during the consideration of each item on the meeting agenda.” This can include “public criticism of the governmental body” or any action or inaction.
This should correctly remind local governing entities to be even smarter in how they conduct and schedule public business, including sharply limiting time at the beginning of meetings for endless public tributes and honors. The law should also remind John Q. Public of the responsibility to prepare well in advance to succinctly and precisely state his or her case in public; demonstrate a decorum appropriate for public meetings; and step wide of mean-spirited or groundless claims born of rumor-mongering and demagoguery that only confuse issues and raise tempers. The law should also remind governmental bodies of the broader need for transparency, including such actions as ensuring recordings of meetings (as required of certain bodies by state law) are promptly made available online and posting detailed agendas in a timely manner. It’s all about We the People.