Austinites attending their next City Council meeting may notice some slightly different processes for public comment under new rules adopted this spring, prompted by a lawsuit claiming that residents' rights to speak were wrongly being limited.

The big picture

The Texas Open Meetings Act lays out various rules designed to keep government processes transparent to the public, including guidelines for how meetings like City Council sessions should be conducted.

Among the many items covered in the act is a provision about public testimony approved by state lawmakers in 2019. That update established government officials can adopt "reasonable rules" for public comment, including a time limit for speaking "on a given item" on a meeting agenda.

In Austin, council has the ability to set its own local standards for conducting regular business and hearing resident testimony.

Austin City Council's public speaking processes were challenged this year by attorney Bill Bunch with the Save Our Springs Alliance, leading council to craft new rules that were upheld in court on July 1. Bunch previously said the case represented "new territory" under the 2019 changes to the Open Meetings Act.

What happened

For years, Austin officials offered people a set time limit to make their comments, rather than separate allowances for as many individual items as they'd like to speak on. Bunch contended that state law now requires officials to offer per-item time limits and sued in April to force that change at City Hall.

Two local judges agreed with him this spring, ordering City Council to immediately offer more speaking time and leading officials to adopt new meeting rules—including a per-item time allowance of 2 minutes—on May 30.

That was council's last regular meeting before its six-week summer recess. The new policies are now in effect for all regular meetings, which start up again the week of July 14.

District Court Judge Daniella DeSeta Lyttle ruled on July 1 that the new procedures are "reasonable" under the Open Meetings Act and can stay in place in Austin, with one adjustment to ensure the policy's enforcement.

Zooming in

In addition to settling the speaking time issue, Bunch raised a related complaint as his case progressed this spring: that City Council was improperly limiting public participation at nonvoting sessions. However, that claim was shot down.

Austin city officials traditionally hold regular council meetings on Thursdays, when they take action on agenda items and get feedback from the public. Those meetings are typically preceded by a Tuesday work session for briefings from city staff and to preview select Thursday agenda items.

No votes are taken at work sessions, and council doesn't allow for any resident input on Tuesdays. But Bunch argued that state law—requiring governments to allow testimony before or during "consideration" of items—meant work sessions should also feature the opportunity for public comment.

"If they don’t want the job of listening to the community and being our representative and taking our input, then they shouldn’t run for office," Bunch said in court July 1. "We’re not asking for an unreasonable interpretation of the statute. We’re asking for a plain language interpretation of the statute, and one that’s functional and consistent with the goals of the statute."

In response, Assistant City Attorney Brandon Mickle said Bunch's claim would make work sessions less practical for officials and the public by turning them into "another de facto City Council meeting."

"Tuesday work sessions increase transparency, and they allow the public to hear these briefings in real-time, from city staff and experts, at the same time that council is being apprised of that information," he said. "The public immeasurably benefits by hearing information related to council and hearing council’s follow-up questions to city staff as well.”

Lyttle ended up siding with the city July 1, finding that Austin's policy against resident testimony at work sessions is legal.

City officials do have the option to allow residents to speak on Tuesdays if they ever want to. Their new rules establish council members may vote to open those sessions to public comment if desired.

What they're saying

An Austin spokesperson said the city appreciated the legal outcome after council's new rules were adopted this spring.

"The city believes strongly in the rights and critical importance of people engaging and participating in their government. We are pleased with the court’s recognition that the city’s new ordinance related to public speaker time complies with the Texas Open Meetings Act," a spokesperson said.

In an email, Bunch said he may pursue further legal action following Lyttle's early July ruling.

"We respectfully disagree with this conclusion. We will evaluate filing a motion for rehearing on this point and/or appealing this part of the decision," he said in an email.