Legislation that would increase the legal rights of people to speak before the elected and appointed leaders of many governing bodies in the Lone Star State was signed into law on Monday, June 10, 2019, by Gov. Gregg Abbott, according to Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, the primary author of the measure.

Featured: Fern McClaugherty, a leader with O.W.L.S. (Objective Watchers of the Legal System), with Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, in the Edinburg City Council Chamber at Edinburg City Hall on Thursday, February 14, 2019, during a reception hosted by the City of Edinburg to honor Canales for his appointment as Chair, House Committee on Transportation.  Photograph by MARK MONTEMAYOR
Featured: Fern McClaugherty, a leader with O.W.L.S. (Objective Watchers of the Legal System), with Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, in the Edinburg City Council Chamber at Edinburg City Hall on Thursday, February 14, 2019, during a reception hosted by the City of Edinburg to honor Canales for his appointment as Chair, House Committee on Transportation. Photograph by MARK MONTEMAYOR

The measure, House Bill 2840, goes into effect on September 1, 2019.

“It has been suggested that the practice of the governing bodies of certain political subdivisions to provide for public input and comment only at the conclusion of a meeting of the governing body makes it too difficult for the public to properly weigh in on decisions being made because they are forced to wait through the entire meeting to provide an opinion on any subject matter being addressed at the meeting,” said Canales. “HB 2840 seeks to give the public increased access to the decision-making process by providing for public comment before or during the consideration of each item on the meeting agenda.”

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg

Canales has made protecting and promoting government transparency a hallmark of his legislative agenda, so much so that on Thursday, September 20, 2018, Canales was named a Transparency Champion by the Texas Press Association for his record of supporting the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act.

(HB 2840) “would require most governmental bodies to allow any member of the public who wished to address the body regarding an item on the agenda for an open meeting to do so at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of that item,” said Canales.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg

HB 2840 adds several important protections for citizens who wish to speak to their elected and appointed leaders during public sessions, including stating that

“a governmental body could not prohibit public criticism of that body unless that criticism was otherwise prohibited by law.”

HB 2840

In addition, citizens would be allowed to provide comments on each item on the agenda during the public comment portion of the open meeting, not just during items for which public hearings already required by state and federal laws, such as determining annual operating budgets, setting tax rates, use of federal block grants, and zoning and rezoning, which determine what activities and construction the place in different parts of cities.

HB 2840 also protects people attending those governmental meetings in other ways, by authorizing governing bodies to use “reasonable rules” to prohibit demonstrations that can intimidate the public, and by allowing those public entities to establish conditions that do not restrict free speech, but that result in the gatherings proceeding smoothly, such as setting time limits during public comment periods, or granting a few individuals to speak on behalf of a large group.

The House District 40 state representative said the legislation was in response to growing concerns by individuals and groups, such as O.W.L.S., an advocacy group based in Hidalgo County, of the reported practices by certain political subdivisions in deep South Texas allegedly designed to discourage citizen participation during public meetings.

“In most cases, my experience has been that the local governing boards in the Valley – such as city commissions, school boards, county commissioners courts, and community colleges – allow people to voice their concerns at the beginning of their open meetings,” Canales said. “Unfortunately, some elected officials in the Valley and elsewhere in Texas believe it is okay to delay the public comment part of their meetings u the end of their public meeting, which is usually late in the evening.

“That is not the intent or the spirit of the Texas Open Meetings Act, and that’s why this legislation was approved by the Texas Legislature,” he emphasized.

Canales’ measure was carried in the Senate by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Tyler, who served as sponsor.

The legislation had strong backing from the Valley’s state legislative delegation, which supported its passage, and which featured Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was a cosponsor of HB 2840.

Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, served as joint authors of HB 2840.

According to the House Research Organization, HB 2840 seeks to give the public increased access to the decision-making process by providing for public comment before or during the consideration of each item on the meeting agenda.

The bill would apply to:

  • A county commissioners court;
  • A municipal governing body;
  • A deliberative body with rulemaking or quasi-judicial power and that was classified as a department, agency, or political subdivision of a county or municipality;
  • A school district board of trustees;
  • A county board of school trustees;
  • A county board of education;
  • The governing board of a special district created by law;
  • A local workforce development board;
  • A nonprofit corporation eligible to receive funds under the federal community services block grant program and authorized by the state to serve a geographic area of the state;
  • A nonprofit corporation that provided a water supply, wastewater service, or both, and was exempt from ad valorem taxation; and
  • A joint board created to exercise the constituent powers of each public agency with respect to an airport, air navigation facility, or airport hazard area.