It’s another sad day for free speech in Leander and since a lot of you are new to what’s going on, I wanted to put this all in one place so we could be on the same page in understanding it. Make no mistake, it’s messed up. What’s happening right now was completely foreseeable and it’s completely wrong.
Many of you are coming to this page because Tuesday night’s special called meeting has been canceled. We’re going to talk about that, but first I think it’s important to understand the events that have led up to it, because this started long before COVID-19.
Leander, historically, like almost every other city council in America has had an item near the beginning of every agenda called “Citizen Comments”. It was where people could come in and they had 3 minutes to talk about anything. Seriously. Anything at all. Charity bake sales. Unfair HOA practices. Grievances with city administrators. Really nothing was out of bounds. We learned so much from these comments. These comments alerted us to problems in the community that we never knew existed. Long-time Council watchers will remember these fondly as the times when Ms. Thompson would get up and present 3 minutes of Leander history, which was often one of the highlights of the evening. The comments were often thought provoking, sometimes about things we had no jurisdiction over, and yes, sometimes they were critical of us.
Then there was the incident with the ACLU and Council voting to close the library rooms. After that, a group of brave moms, teachers and allies began to faithfully show up at every meeting and use citizen comments to respectfully state issues that were important to them: things about inclusion and diversity. They brought in LGBTQ+ books during Banned Books Week. They were awesome. I’m still proud of them.
After several weeks of these amazing women speaking in front of us, we were presented with a new ordinance that would remove citizen comments about non-agenda items altogether. Seriously. The argument was that there was a change in the law and that we didn’t need it anymore, but that’s fiction. The change that had taken place in Texas law that year was to give protections to citizens in areas where councils weren’t allowing them to comment on items that were on agendas, because apparently that was a thing. Unfortunately, those protections didn’t extend to non-agenda items.
We argued. This was stupid. Yep, I’m going to say this and I’m going to stand my ground, THIS. WAS. STUPID. Residents came out and spoke against it. Not a single person came out in support of losing public comments. Not one. Why would anybody in their right mind want to take that away from someone? The debate was long and arduous and at least changed the conversation from removing comments altogether to changing it to this weird timed thing that has to be community interest, even though that’s incredibly subjective…But it was clear that I was outnumbered. The only people on my side at that time were Council members Stephenson and Pantalian-Parker. So I bit the bullet and voted with the rest of the Council to end the citizen comments. Seriously. I will never forget the look of disgust on the faces of those women in the gallery that I had adored so much as I betrayed them momentarily…but there was a reason.
If you cast a vote on the prevailing side, you can make a motion to reconsider within the next 7 days. So first thing the next morning, I fired off an email notifying the mayor and staff that I was formally requesting we reconsider this item. And I’ll be, if I didn’t receive a nastygram right back telling me I couldn’t do that. Like Hell, I couldn’t. I knew the rules and I wasn’t asking; I was notifying.
Two weeks later, our meeting came up. The way that a motion to reconsider works is that instead of considering the entire motion all over again, the person gets to make their argument about why you should consider the motion again and then the Council votes on whether or not to open discussion back up. I had several arguments locked and loaded. We get to that point on the agenda, a few members of the public get up and speak, then our attorney comes up to walk us through, and then as I went to talk about it my reasons, I kept getting cut off. The mayor called the vote and wouldn’t even let me give the reasons, and all but Council Member Stephenson agreed with him that even a sitting Council Member didn’t have the right to speak in front of this body. I have always tried to leave things on the dais, but I will never leave that one there and have never been able to see any of those Council members again without seeing that vote.
I straight up got bullied out of the opportunity to speak. We never even got to talk about the item. They wouldn’t even let me tell the reasons I thought it should be discussed. Unbelievable. Don’t believe me, watch the video.
That was October of 2019. Fast forward to March of 2020. COVID-19 hits and for a while we go to phone-in meetings. The agenda item about public comments of items of community interest is suddenly and quietly changed to this:
Public comments on items not listed in the agenda that are of public concern or community interest have been suspended at this time.
And to this day, though Council is meeting in person, that hasn’t changed. I should note as well, all these changes we’ve just talked about, back in October, and now this one throughout COVID, none of these changes were ever made to any other city agendas: not for Planning & Zoning meetings or any boards or commissions. These were just for Council.
So fast forward to this past week and the mask order. People are upset about COVID-19. It’s rocked their lives. They want to talk about it. We’ve now created a system where they are precluded from discussing it with us. And while they can’t talk to us about the mask order, they CAN talk about the disaster declaration which is really, REALLY close and when you’re concerned about the steps the government is taking to either protect your or interfere with your life, that’s super valid. Now the only outlet they have to know that they’re being heard on this topic is to sign up for this agenda item because we’ve literally taken away any other option. So over 140 people took the time to sign up. It was that important to them. They needed to be heard. They needed to be validated and valued.
There were so many, it was a concern that it would overwhelm the phone system. So the Mayor moved that one item only to its own specific meeting on Tuesday night. I can support that.
So let’s talk about what the meeting was and wasn’t going to be about. The meeting wasn’t about the masking order; it was about the disaster declaration. In order to issue an order, the mayor must issue a disaster declaration, but a disaster declaration expires after 7 days if it isn’t extended by the Council. When the declaration expires, so too does the order. Yes, the governor issued his own masking order on Thursday, so this meeting is not necessarily needed, but when over 140 people affirmatively tell you “this is so important to me, I’m taking steps to tell you about it” that’s big. You best listen.
I worried Thursday night at our meeting when he said that Item #35 was pulled from the agenda and didn’t clarify that it was being moved to Tuesday night, even though that meeting was already set and staff had already taken the time to notify everyone. It should have been said.
I feel like there’s a pattern here, a systemic silencing that’s marred this administration. The need to separate out agenda item 35 into its own meeting grew out of the fact that you all were corralled into it because the only other outlet you had, public comments, had been taken from you. Imagine if at any time in the last 4 months, you could have spoken to us about how we were handling COVID-19? Instead, you had to wait for it to come up on an agenda and then you all had to pile on to the same item.
As a side note: This sort of incident came up once before in mid-2019 when we were discussing CapMetro. As I recall, the Mayor then too had a huge turnout of people speaking about CapMetro service and he decided to pull the item from consideration. It was not noticed to another meeting, it was pulled completely. The City Attorney advised on the record that because so many people had shown up, that though the item was being pulled, each person should be allowed to speak, and they did speak. I find it personally hard to reconcile that event with this one.
You all deserve to be heard. I’m sorry that you aren’t. No matter what you believe, whether we agree or not, even if you want to just yell at us, you deserve to be heard, period.
So if you’re like me, you’re cycling between outrage and despondency right now, so I’m going to leave you with something funny and somewhat inappropriate. This is from Parks & Rec, and it’s one of my favorite things of all time: citizens caring loudly. It’s a reminder that some comments are serious, some are absurd, but every comment means something to somebody. Enjoy.