Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the city.

Austinites now have more time to speak on regular agenda items at City Council meetings under court orders that have expanded public testimony.

The big picture

In Texas, residents' right to speak at public meetings are laid out in Chapter 551 of government code. New legislation in 2019 updated state law to specify how members of the public must be offered the chance to speak during meetings.

Within Austin, city officials are responsible for laying out the exact details of that process. The city charter establishes that council can "determine its own rules and order of business" by passing an ordinance.

Under the current council, those wishing to testify on the consent agenda—less controversial items that typically make up the bulk of council's meeting schedules—were typically given 2 minutes total. That allowance applied regardless of whether a person signed up to speak on one or several consent items.

However, a lawsuit over that 2-minute limit was filed this spring and, as of early May, has adjusted council's testimony practices to allow significantly more input for now.

What happened

Bill Bunch, a local attorney and executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, was testifying on four consent issues at an April council meeting when he hit the 2-minute limit on his batch of items. Bunch vowed to sue the city, both over that time allowance and the grouping of agenda items together under a single limit.

“It just seemed like [council members] were not going to change course, and seemed happy with both their much weaker procedures and then not even following those," Bunch told Community Impact in April. "It just came to a head on April 4, when I felt like ... these were important items that deserved a lot more attention from the council and the opportunity for the public to speak to them than was being allowed.”

Bunch did sue, and District Court Judge Madeleine Connor ruled April 17 that Austin City Council appeared to be violating both the Texas Open Meetings Act as well as the city charter provision on meeting rules.

Connor issued a temporary restraining order requiring council to allow anyone to speak for up to 3 minutes on each individual consent item they sign up for, rather than a total testimony time limit. For example, someone testifying on five items now has 15 minutes to speak.

Connor's order was extended April 30 by District Court Judge Daniella DeSeta Lyttle and is now in effect until July 1, when Bunch and the city will reconvene in court. Before that date, City Council could also adopt new rules that fall within the legal boundaries outlined by the judges.

"The point here is to allow council time to take action and ensure that the rules conform with the City Charter ... and that those rules strictly comply with ... the Texas Government Code pertaining to public testimony," Lyttle said.

The details

Council was found to be working outside of provisions in state law that call for government officials to set "reasonable rules" for public testimony, including time limits for commentary "on a given item."

“It should be beyond dispute that we’re here today taking up the court’s time because the council is refusing to grant the public the right to speak for a reasonable amount of time on each item and insists on continuing to say, ‘You only get 2 minutes no matter how many items you sign up on, no matter how important they are to the community,'" Bunch said in court on April 30.
Details of Austin City Council's public testimony rules were contested in court in April. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
Austin City Council's public testimony rules were contested in court in April. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
The new rulings on the Texas Open Meetings Act out of the Travis County district court arrived at different conclusions than a 2020 opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton—which Bunch said was wrongly decided. Bunch called the case "new territory" for cities across the state that may not have been fully complying with the 2019 revision to the law.

Additionally, Austin officials were found to be violating the city's own charter given that their most recent speaker policy, including the 2-minute rule, were laid out in less formal ways than a city ordinance. City staff have proposed amending the charter this fall to remove the ordinance requirement.

Ahead of the July 1 court date, City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance to update meeting rules, although details are yet to be determined.

A city spokesperson said the recent court orders will lead to council meeting rule revisions.

“The city has a long history of welcoming public engagement and comment and the city values the opinions and recommendations that come from our volunteer boards and commissions," the spokesperson said in a statement. "We as an organization strive to be transparent in our decision-making. While we continue to believe that the meetings of the Austin City Council comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act, the city will soon revisit the rules and procedures related to City Council meetings in light of the recent court decisions.”