Can school board use OMA update as justification for restricting public comments?
Question: My school district is claiming that it’s restricting public comment to agenda items due to the recent law (they were previously allowing any comments). This seems like a gross misrepresentation of a change designed to guarantee a right rather than restrict it. Is my understanding correct?
Answer: Looks like your school district is reading the update to the Open Meetings Act in a very literal way that undermines the purpose of the revision in the 2019 legislative session.
We’re talking about HB 2840, which requires government bodies to allow people to comment on agenda items. Yes, the purpose of that was to allow more comments, not fewer, but another section of the revision says the government “may adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body … including rules that limit the total amount of time that a member of the public may address the body on a given item.” The intent of that was to keep the public from wasting time or basically shutting down a session by talking endlessly – not to eliminate public comment time outside of agenda items altogether.
Here’s the bill text: https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/86R/billtext/html/HB02840S.htm
I’d read that to mean that “people may not speak on anything but agenda items” (as your school district seems to be doing) is not a “reasonable rule” under the law. That would at least be up for interpretation by the AG, and may be worth challenging the ISD on. The Texas Municipal League reads the bill as permitting but not requiring government bodies to allow open comment, as long as the body isn’t restricting public criticism of the body (another passage in the OMA revision). Read this from TML counsel Zindia Thomas, who I respect on open records/meetings matters as acting in good faith on interpreting these things, rather than being reflexively defensive of her organization’s members: https://www.tml.org/DocumentCenter/View/1237/HB-2840-Public-Comment-on-Agenda-Items
In short, I’d suggest asking your school district to return to allowing an open comment session on non-agenda items, arguing that dismissing public comment altogether is not a “reasonable rule” under the HB 2840 revisions. It may at least be worth seeing if the AG would issue a letter opinion on it. It may also be a call to the AG hotline on open meetings, 512-478-6736.