Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Commissioners court modifies its rules of procedure, conduct and decorum

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The Hood County Commissioners Court voted to modify its current rules of procedure, conduct and decorum during a regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 24.

A discussion first took place on Sept. 26 about potentially adopting a new parliamentary procedure for future meetings of the Hood County Commissioners Court.

At the time, Robert’s Rules of Order was the main discussion item, however during the Oct. 10 meeting, Precinct 2 Commissioner Nannette Samuelson offered to update the rules of decorum following the guidance of the Texas Association of Counties.

"Those who spoke from the public said the commissioners court should conduct the business of the county, and that all people, court and public, should conduct themselves with decorum and respect, and refrain from insults and personal attacks,” Samuelson said, during the Oct. 24 meeting. "Honoring (Hood County Judge Ron Massingill’s) request to have more time to review, the agenda item was tabled.”

The three changes Samuelson suggested to add to the current rules of procedure, conduct and decorum are listed below:

“VI. All members of the court and public are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates respect toward others and the court itself. Behavior that impedes or disrupts the business of the commissioners court while court is in session is prohibited and unlawful pursuant to Texas Penal Code § 42.05. It is the intention of Hood County Commissioners Court to attend to county business effectively and efficiently, without undue interruption. Cell phone usage during commissioners court is strictly prohibited. All cell phones, pagers, and other mobile communication devices should be in “silent” mode at all times while court is in session.”

“IX. Each member of the public who has completed a public participation form will be called on to speak by the presiding officer. When the speaker's name is called, the member of the public shall speak at that time, or pass. Once the member of the public has chosen to speak or pass, this will fulfill the speaking opportunity on the particular agenda item or the public comments at large.”

“XIII. If at any time, a member of the commissioners court observes the rules herein documented not being followed, any member of the court shall be authorized to call a point of order to request a ruling by the presiding officer. Any member of the court shall be authorized to move to overrule the presiding officer's ruling. Upon receiving a second, the presiding officer will call for a vote. The presiding officer's ruling can only be overruled with a majority vote.”

Samuelson stated she provided the same documents she provided on Oct. 10, but she yielded to Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle to discuss his proposed changes.

Eagle added a reference to the Texas Government Code §551.007(e) following item F, which states, “It is not the intention of the Hood County Commissioners Court to provide a public forum for the demeaning of any individual or group. Neither is it the intention of the court to allow a member (or members) of the public to insult the honesty and/or integrity of the court, as a body, or any member or members of the court, individually or collectively. Accordingly, profane, insulting or threatening language directed toward the court and/or any person in the court’s presence and/or racial, ethnic or gender slurs or epithets will not be tolerated. These rules do not prohibit public criticism of the commissioners court, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program or service.”

He also added a paragraph on item V, which states: “Should the presiding officer make a call to impose any sanction under these rules for any alleged violation of these rules by any member (or members) of the public, any commissioner may intervene by making an appeal on behalf of the member (or members) of the public to reconsider said sanction. If the presiding officer refuses to reconsider or continues to move forward with imposing any sanction, a motion to overrule the presiding officer may be made by any commissioner. Upon a second and majority vote, the presiding officer’s call for a violation and related sanction shall be overruled and the member (or members) of the public at issue shall be allowed to continue.”

Eagle explained that the Texas Government Code was not referenced previously under item F, so he made the necessary change to reflect the code.

“Basically, number five is the 180-degree difference to the last one that Mrs. Samuelson put on the agenda, and it's just basically saying that somebody comes up here, and then the presiding officer decides to go for a sanction that it's subject to being questioned,” Eagle said. “That's all it is, and it's the flip side of the last one that Mrs. Samuelson put on the last page.”

Following the proposed changes to the rules, several residents came to the podium to express their opinions and concerns about the agenda item.

Resident Tina Brown said the rule regarding cell phone usage was not clear. She recommended the same rule apply not only to the public but to every commissioner and the county clerk, as well.

"That way we know you are concentrating on us and not texting, emailing, or playing games on our time,” she said.

Brown also had a concern regarding residents being called on to speak in a public forum by the presiding officer in item IX.

"You have put language in there that says once your name is called you shall speak or pass, and you can't speak again. But oftentimes you ask someone for more information, so is that going to be taken away from you?” she asked the court. "If someone happens to step out of the court to take an important call or go to the restroom, they're just out of luck and don't get to speak on the agenda item. I just think we're being too nitpicky on here. It just seems like this is all unnecessary.”

Brown then spoke about item V regarding overriding the presiding officer and said the commissioners court should “rethink the whole thing,” because this change will only “cause more division, more chaos and more issues.”

“This is a blatant act of control over this court,” she said. “If you wanted to be the judge, I suggest you run for the position. If the presiding officer, the judge, calls someone out of order, his speaking time should stop, and that person should listen to the judge. Oftentimes that does not happen. We have to have decorum and the judge is the presiding officer.”

She also stated that public meetings are not addressed well in the document and said she doesn’t understand why the public has to fill out a form to participate in a public meeting.

"We do need proper decorum, but we shouldn't have to sign up to speak in a public meeting,” Brown concluded. “All comments should be welcomed.”

Resident Richard Hoefs explained that the rules outlined in red provided by Samuelson are essentially “guidelines” to the public.

"For people who come maybe once a year or once every five years to the court to speak, it's truly helpful to have those guidelines to know what is expected and what decorum is in the court. I’m totally in favor of those,” he said.

Hoefs said the rules outlined in blue provided by Eagle reference overriding the initial decision of the presiding officer of the court. He said at first, he was concerned as this decision could only make “a divided court even worse.” However, he said everyone views the world through the lens of their experiences and not everyone views things the same way.

"It's entirely possible that the presiding officer — either the judge or one of the commissioners — would see something differently than the court as a whole just because of that previous life experience,” Hoefs said. “These amendments give the court — in the rare circumstance where the court disagrees with the presiding officer — the chance to have a census opinion much like an appellate court does, and to move the process forward quickly, and resolve it in that meeting, and either tell the speaker too that they're out of bounds or let them continue, so I'm in favor of these changes.”

Former Hood County Republican Party Chair Nate Criswell said any steps the court can take to foster an environment where everyone can disagree without being disagreeable is a good thing.

"Anything we can do to rein in people that like to come to the podium and talk about events and personnel that have nothing to do with Hood County, other than being a resident, I think needs to stop,” he said. “And I wholeheartedly approve of the measures to override the presiding officer, should he not fulfill his duties in presiding over this meeting, as we've seen on numerous occasions.”

Resident Harold Granek said in the many years he has attended meetings of the Hood County Commissioners Court, only one person violated the decorum.

"That being the exception, largely the rules we have seemed to have worked," he said. "My view is, if it's not broken, don't try to fix it, and the way we've operated so far seems to work really well. I'd suggest we not vote for this but keep the rules we had in the past, and continue to do that, and for people to be respectful and preserve the decorum they've shown in the past.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kevin Andrews said for almost three years, he has sat in the dais and has seen “horrible things” come out of the podium.

“I've seen private citizens in this county attacked,” he said. “I've seen a person’s character questioned and assassinated from that podium. I've seen political stump, but that's not what this is about. I am absolutely 100% — and have been since the day I took this seat — supportive of the general public coming up and expressing their viewpoint, and quite frankly, criticizing if we had done something as a county. This is not to take away criticism of the job that I've done. If you have something to say to me, you're welcome to come up here and say it, but it's not okay for somebody to come up here and attack a private citizen or to assassinate somebody's character or to question their motives. Stick to the facts. Let's rein this thing in. This puts it in a framework of rules in here we can all work within and return this thing to some civility and stay on point in doing county business.”

Samuelson then made the motion to adopt the proposed changes to the rules of procedure, conduct and decorum in meetings of the Hood County Commissioners Court as presented.

The motion carried 4:1, with Massingill voting “Nay.”