Overtime: Austin City Council’s public-speaking dispute continues

Bill Bunch debates public-comment times with Mayor Kirk Watson on April 4.
Bill Bunch debates public-comment times with Mayor Kirk Watson on April 4. Image credit: City of Austin

The Austin City Council’s new rules governing public speaking time at council meetings may still violate state law, according to plaintiffs in an ongoing legal dispute. Plaintiffs say that Austin’s recent ordinance extending how long it lets individuals address the council failed to resolve the underlying lawsuit that prompted the new ordinance in the first place.

The lawsuit challenged a 2023 council resolution that generally limited the public to addressing the council for no more than two minutes, regardless of how many agenda items they wished to address. Save Our Springs Alliance and its executive director, Bill Bunch, alleged in their April lawsuit that the policy violated Austin’s city charter and the Texas Open Meetings Act. 

Agreeing, two local district judges issued temporary restraining orders in April that briefly returned the city to its policy of granting speakers three minutes per agenda item. Seeking to settle the matter on May 30, the council adopted an ordinance that grants speakers two minutes per agenda item. 

Amending his lawsuit on June 7, Bunch spelled out his objections to the new ordinance. In a phone call with Austin Free Press Bunch acknowledged that two minutes per agenda item marks an improvement. Yet that still might not be enough time for complex issues, he said. “If it’s an ordinance that’s 12 pages long and affects the face of Austin, two minutes is not reasonable,” he said. “The Open Meetings Act calls for a reasonable time limit.” The next case hearing is scheduled on July 1.

“I was really distressed that it took a lawsuit before…this mayor and this council restored the public’s right to speak at council meetings,” said former Council Member Kathie Tovo, who is challenging Mayor Kirk Watson in the November election. “Three minutes per person is a long standing practice at city council,” Tovo said in a phone interview. She said the council should uphold that practice except “in really unusual circumstances” such as “if you have 200 people sign up to speak.”

Austin has been known for citizenship engagement and impassioned speech going back to at least 1990, when hundreds of people converged at an all-night council session to protest a proposed development along Barton Creek, which feeds Barton Springs Pool. That was the wellspring of Austin’s 1992 Save Our Springs Ordinance.   

Local lawyer Bill Aleshire, who volunteers with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, argues that the traditional three-minute time limit “is sufficient for most people to put a package of recommendations and ideas together.”

While the city now lets local residents speak for two minutes per council agenda item, it generally prohibits them from speaking at all during city work session meetings, where upcoming council agenda items are reviewed and discussed. 

Bunch and Aleshire argue that not allowing public comment at those Tuesday meetings violates the Open Meetings Act. 

“If they’re going to discuss an item, they have to let people talk about it,” Bunch said. “They can get a staff briefing, they can ask staff questions, and that doesn’t trigger the right to speak. But if there’s any kind of deliberation or discussion, then they have to let people speak to the item at the work session.”

Tovo did not immediately endorse the public addressing work sessions, saying she wants to “take time to understand the community’s concerns about work meetings better.” 

Another mayoral candidate, Carmen Llanes Pulido, says that the public should have an opportunity to speak at those meetings because “more and more is happening very quickly in work sessions.” Llanes Pulido, a former member of the city Planning Commission, told Austin Free Press, “Even though meetings are long, that’s often one of the only places we have to communicate with our council members.”

Mayor Kirk Watson’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story. 

The Office of the Attorney General of Texas’ “Open Meetings Act Handbook 2024” says that this state law applies almost any time public officials meet to discuss or deliberate official business, even outside of a formal government meeting. That means all of the law’s requirements kick in, including the need to give public notice, to publish a record of the meeting, and to allow a “reasonable” amount of public comment. Rare exceptions include executive sessions — when public officials obtain legal advice — and briefings where officials simply receive information.  

Aleshire told Austin Free Press by phone that the Open Meetings Act requires public comment at any gathering of a governmental body where discussion or deliberation takes place. “People are entitled to speak on each agenda item at any open meeting of the governmental body,” he said. He added that this lawsuit could set an important precedent. “This has been a statewide issue, with city councils trying to severely and unlawfully limit how long people can talk and what they can talk about.”

The City of Austin did not directly respond to Austin Free Press questions about how the Open Meetings Act applies to city council work meetings. Instead, city spokesperson Memi Cárdenas wrote that the “Council recently adopted an ordinance that reflects their current procedural practices regarding public participation at Council meetings, including time allocated to speakers who wish to speak.”

The public-speech lawsuit stems from a council meeting on April 4, when Bunch requested eight minutes to address four agenda items and Mayor Watson held him to a total of two minutes. “I will sue you in court,” Bunch said in concluding that brief exchange. “And we will have this foolishness put to an end.”

In the latest legal filing in Save our Springs Alliance v. Kirk Watson et al., Bunch urged the court on June 7 to prohibit the council “from discussing items at any public meeting without allowing members of the public to speak to any item discussed at the same meeting.”

The Austin City Council and the Texas Open Meetings Act have a history. Two local judges ruled in 2017 that the city violated this law by failing to provide proper advance public disclosure on three council agenda items (Aleshire litigated those cases). 

Activist Brian Rodgers and the Austin Bulldog uncovered evidence in 2011 that city council members regularly violated the Open Meetings Act by illegally discussing official business in private prior to council meetings. This prohibited practice is known as a “walking quorum.” Seven members of that council settled related charges with then-Travis County Attorney David Escamilla in 2012 by signing deferred prosecution agreements and agreeing to avoid the prohibited practice in the future. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found this same provision of the law to be “unconstitutionally vague” in 2019.  Then-state Senator Kirk Watson sponsored legislation enacted later that year that clarified and restored the walking-quorum prohibition.

In a final twist, the Austin Bulldog published a story shortly before Watson’s December 2022 mayoral election alleging that Watson first instituted walking quorums at Austin City Council upon first becoming mayor in 1997. Watson did not respond to requests for comment on that Bulldog report then or now.

Before the city adopted its new speech ordinance on May 30, District 4 Council Member José “Chito” Vela proposed an amendment to set an absolute ceiling on how long one person can speak on consent items, regardless of how many of them they wish to address. Vela subsequently withdrew that amendment. At that same meeting, District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said, “I think that three minutes is the right amount” to speak. Alter abstained from the final vote on the speech ordinance. 

Disclosures: Bill Bunch sits on the Austin Free Press Advisory Board; Bill Aleshire is an Austin Free Press donor. 

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