Conroe, April 10 – One of the major proposals which the Commissioners Court will consider during its meeting on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, at 9:30 a.m., comes from Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark. Clark has placed on the Agenda for the meeting, “Consider and take appropriate action on establishing and setting open ‘workshop’ meetings prior to the regular sessions of Commissioners Court for discussion or regular session agenda items and public comment.”
Commissioner Clark told The Golden Hammer, “The workshops would enable the whole Commissioners Court to sit down and meet about items on the agenda and openly discuss how they feel. Currently, I can call one Commissioner but I can’t discuss anything we’ve talked about that any other Commissioner said. This procedure would create a format for us to have a dialogue that clearly involves the public and public issues. Sometimes, items pertaining to as little as a few hundred dollars and in a lot of cases items over several million dollars go through the Commissioners Court with little or no discuss. It’s time we change the way we do business.”
“There are other counties using this format. I’m working on research on what other counties use as ground rules and would like to report at the next Court meeting on April 25,” Clark added. “These workshops would allow citizens to participate substantially as well. The purpose of the workshops is to permit the Court members to meet openly and have robust discussion with any member of the community that wishes to attend, but all in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.”
Several governmental entities have tried pre-meeting workshops, properly noticed under the Texas Open Meetings Act, to permit members of the governmental bodies to discuss Agenda items in greater detail and to interact with members of the public on issues particular of interest to them. The City of Conroe’s City Council regularly conducts workshops either a day or two before regular City Council meetings. Some special purpose districts have held workshops on particular issues.
One of the most striking aspects of the Montgomery County Commissioners Court is the complete lack of discussion. The Court approves millions of dollars in spending and alterations to the County Budget, through Budget Amendments, without discussion, deliberation, or seemingly even review. The Commissioners rarely talk to each other in open court other than once in a while to make snide comments. It’s a rare issue where there’s actually any discussion. The recent proposal to approve a 20% property tax homestead exemption was one of the rare instances in which the members of the Commissioners Court – Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack, Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley, and Clark, in particular – maintained any meaningful discussion. Even matters as significant as the County Budget rarely receive any substantive discussion in meetings in open court.
Rumors about throughout Montgomery County about secret meetings at Precinct 1 County Commissioner Mike Meador’s “camp,” within the Sadler Administration Building, or other locations around the County where members of the Commissioners Court communicate about upcoming issues. Similarly, some of the members of the Commissioners Court regularly communicate by text messaging through the spouse of one of the Commissioners. Whether those communications are “secret deliberations” or not may be beside the point, especially after the secretive County Judge Craig Doyal and Riley have gotten a district judge to declare a major section of the Texas Open Meetings Act unconstitutional.
Whatever the cause may be, however, there’s little discussion in Commissioners Court. With Doyal’s heavy-handed 3-minute restriction on citizens comments, free speech by citizens to the Commissioners is hardly an option available to the general public.
Clark’s proposal to hold longer workshops may work a slight inconvenience to the County Judge or some of the Commissioners who maintain substantial golf or social calendars. That’s tough. The taxpayers pay them very, very high full-time salaries. Asking the members of the Commissioners Court to conduct serious workshops on the serious issues before the Commissioners Court is not too much.
When asked when Clark envisions that the workshops would occur, Clark responded, “This meeting could be immediately prior to Commissioners Court or the day before or even the week before. I’d like to discuss this idea and get feedback from the other Commissioners and see what they feel like would work best.”