Mayor Cory Thompson declined to allow public comment during the Devine City Council meeting held last Tuesday, March 16, and later in the meeting Council amended the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency declaration in preparation for opening City buildings up to the public following declining COVID infection rates and Governor Greg Abbott’s rescinding of the statewide mask mandate.
Thompson announced there would be no public comment in the meeting shortly after it was called into session, despite several residents having already signed up to address Council during the Visitors/Citizens Forum agenda item.
Public comment was also suspended for the TIRZ Board meeting held before the Council meeting.
“As I said before in the other meeting, I am going to continue to go with the COVID rules that are currently in place until Council adds something or changes something, which we are discussing later in the meeting,” Thompson said. “So at the moment there won’t be a visitors or citizens forum.”
Citizens addressed Council as recently as the prior month’s Regular meeting on February 22. Medina County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Beck spoke during the Visitors/Citizens Forum portion of the meeting, as did Kevin Stephens and Kevin Hicks.
During the Feb. 22 meeting, Thompson said the Council had been operating under COVID rules since the early part of last summer and into the fall before infection numbers went up again, and reminded those present that at recent meetings, citizens were only allowed into the Community Center if their agenda item was up.
“Many residents are still under the impression that we are still operating by those rules, because we are still operating by those rules,” Thompson said. “We do have a visitors/citizens forum; if somebody wants to talk on that, I will give them three minutes, but beyond that, the discussion is still going to be discussion between Council, because most people are not aware of the fact that…we’re still operating by the same rules, so when you have other items on here, it’s still Council discussion because as of last meeting we were actually operating under you were not even allowed to sit in the room unless your agenda item was up next.”
City Attorney Tom Cate said that the State Legislature passed legislation two years ago allowing people to speak under any topic on a meeting agenda.
“And now, since the pandemic, the chairman, the mayor has the authority to waive that in the conduct of the meeting,” Cate said. “So that’s up to you, Cory.”
Hicks and Stephens are running for Council positions currently held by Thompson and District 5 Councilwoman Debra Randall and were among those signed up to address Council on Mar. 16.
A Public Hearing soliciting citizen feedback on the City’s response to the February snow storm and on Animal Control policy is set for March 30 at the Community Center.
Background on public comment policy
Abbott’s COVID-19 Disaster Declaration, initially issued in March 2020, suspended provisions of the Open Meetings Act including Section 551.007(b) of the Texas Government Code, which states, “A governmental body shall allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda for an open meeting of the body to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item.”
Abbott renewed the Declaration for an additional 30 days on Mar. 6.
However, guidance issued from the Texas Municipal League on Mar. 16 advised that governmental bodies holding in-person meetings disregard the Open Meetings Act suspensions.
“A city council or other governmental body that has a ‘normal’ in-person meeting should follow the Texas Open Meetings Act requirements as they were prior to the suspensions,” TML Coronavirus Update #178 stated. “A city council that imposes some pandemic mitigation measure (e.g., social distancing) should do the same.”
Public Health Emergency declaration
Later in the meeting, Council voted to amend the Public Health Emergency declaration regarding COVID-19 that was initially issued in March 2020.
Following discussion with Emergency Management Coordinator Rob Flores, the City Hall lobby is scheduled to open to the public on Thursday, April 1, with masks mandatory for both City staff and customers. The Animal Control shelter will also open on April 1.
The Community Center is scheduled to be used as a polling place in the upcoming May election and will be available to public beginning Monday, May 3.
Due to the size of the Police Department, officers will continue to meet with residents outside the office when necessary.
A date for re-opening the Driscoll Public Library and the policies that will be in place will be announced following recommendations from Head Librarian Debi DuBose.
By Marly Davis