Alpine residents decry limiting speech at city meetings

By Alberto Tomas Halpern
Big Bend Sentinel
Originally published Aug. 7, 2014

ALPINE – Alpine residents exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech at Tuesday’s regular city meeting were unanimous in their dissent of a proposed ordinance that would have, among other things, strictly limited public comments at city meetings.

The draft ordinance, as currently written, and whose first reading was approved by council on July 15, would have limited public comments at meetings to eight individuals; limited speech to two minutes, down from three; would have required residents wishing to speak to sign up the day of the meeting between 10am and 4:45pm; and moved city meetings from 6pm to 5pm.

“Frankly, this whole sign-in notion smacks of totalitarianism to me and I protest it vehemently,” resident Bob Litton said to city officials. He suggested that if council did indeed want to limit the number of people speaking at meetings, that the new ordinance allow for a spokesperson to speak on behalf of a group who share the same position, rather than multiple citizens repeatedly speaking.

“Every effort should be made to encourage citizen participation. Hurdles should not be placed in the way to these meetings that can discourage or impede its citizens who want to participate,” Litton added.

Another Alpine woman told city officials that moving the meetings to 5pm would unduly harm residents who work 8am to 5pm jobs.

“If you change the meeting time, I will consider that an effort to make it more difficult for working people of Alpine to participate in city government,” she said.

Manfred Fritsche offered some of the strongest language opposed to the proposed ordinance.

“The council and city government seems to have contempt for the public,” he said. “One has to ask, what were the authors of this misguided draft thinking?”

Fritsche said that in light of a number of controversies the city has dealt with in recent years, including an ongoing FBI investigation into finances, that the city is trying to “shut the public up to the maximum extent possible.”

“If you cannot stand the heat of public interaction, in the words of Harry Truman: get out of the kitchen,” Fritsche said. Fritsche, a vocal critic of Alpine mayor Dr. Avinash Rangra, added, “You, Mr. Mayor and members of this council, must undergo an attitude adjustment.”

Dallas Baxter implored city officials not to “curtail public comment” but be more transparent and forthcoming, which she said would help government and the public become more civil.

“You need to know what we think,” she said.

City Manager Erik Zimmer said he had received comments from a number of citizens in addition to the feedback at the meeting. Zimmer said it was not the intention of the ordinance to “stifle anybody’s ability to speak,” but rather make meetings more “robust.”

Zimmer and city attorney William Mick McKamie said there were concerns about possible Texas Open Meetings Act violations taking place with citizen comments held at the end of meetings.

Public comment is currently allowed at both the beginning and end of meetings.

McKamie said that if the public comments on an agenda item at the end of a meeting, after an item has been acted upon and closed, then “that still constitutes deliberation of the item” and can run afoul of state law.

Newly appointed city council member Rick Stephens said he held a forum for his constituents and there was “significant push back” on the need to sign up to speak at meetings.

A committee made up of council members Cynthia Salas, Julian Gonzalez and Zimmer will re-write the ordinance and present a new draft on August 19.

Zimmer told The Big Bend Sentinel after the meeting that the committee will use comments and feedback from residents in writing the new language.

“Then we’ll integrate up to what the committee feels is appropriate,” Zimmer said. “For every comment there is that other side and you want to put in what makes sense for the majority.”

In other city business, council members discussed in executive session whether or not to create an assistant city manager position. Upon returning into open session, council took no action on that item. Zimmer said Wednesday afternoon that the city might entertain hiring an executive or administrative assistant to help him with routine and day-to-day items.

Council members also discussed in closed session a “readout from FBI investigation into City Financial Matters.”

Council members ordered Zimmer to continue to update them on the continuing investigation.

Zimmer told The Big Bend Sentinel that once the investigation is complete, he will issue a public statement.

“I anticipate that will be sooner rather than later,” said Zimmer.