San Marcos City Council’s changes to free speech, transparency, accountability to the charter: Why not let the people decide?

By Professor “LMC” Lisa Marie Coppoletta, columnist

Tuesday’s “Regular Meeting” on August 03, 2021, City Council will vote on Amendments to the San Marcos City Charter. 

Item 35 council will consider ordering a special and general election “to be held on November 2, 2021, for the purpose of electing a City Council Member for Place 5, a City Council Member for Place 6 and to submit proposed amendments to the San Marcos City Charter to the voters; making provisions for conducting the election; providing for the approval of this ordinance as an emergency measure on only one reading.”

Attachments:

The Charter Review Commission (CRC) is an appointed body by the City Council containing the most qualified residents in our community who have served in various capacities in San Marcos.

Each elected official appoints one citizen to the CRC. The CRC is the Constitutional Convention every four years in San Marcos, Texas. 

The purpose of the CRC is to ensure that elected officials do not taint ballot initiatives to be presented to the voters in matters which would benefit them financially or their political careers. 

City Council made drastic changes during their “Work Session” on July 06, 2021, 3:00 PM to the final recommendations of the CRC.

These changes will significantly affect the ballot language to be presented to the voters this November. During the July 06, 2021 “Work Session,” no public comment was allowed.

It is unclear if the San Marcos City Council reviewed videos of the CRC meetings. City Attorney and City Manager Bert Lumbreras denied access to the zoom meetings.

They certainly did not reference the CRC one time during their significant changes to the presented recommendations.

I repeatedly sent requests via email correspondence and public meetings on the public record for these CRC video recordings to be made available to our elected officials,  press, and public.

The only way to obtain the videos is by filing an Open Records Request with the City of San Marcos.

COVID updates in “Regular Meetings” have taken significantly more time in City Council meetings than the discussion of the Charter ballot language in “Work Session” on July 06, 2021.

And yet, the justification for a 3:00 PM “Work Session” rather than discussing a “Regular Meeting” at 6:00 PM would be a time-consuming process. It only took an hour. And, changes made that were not addressed the first time the recommendations were presented on May 18 during “Regular Session.”

All of the changes proposed by Mayor Jane Hughson had to be reminded of the parameters of the meeting.

“Mr. Constantino, you have your hand up and do I have something technically incorrect here. If I do, please let me know. Or whatever else you wanted to say. Mr. Cosentino, you’re still on mute, sir,” said Hughson.

FLIP FLOP…
“They voted for it before voting against it”

“It’s not the substance of what you’re proposing, Mayor. It’s the fact that we’re in a work session. So we’re not supposed to devote .. on the basis of the discussions, staff will have direction about how to prepare the ordinance,” said City of San Marcos City Attorney Michael Cosentino. “But because we’re in a work session rather than a regular meeting, there’s no voting to happen on this. But we will take very detailed notes of what the pleasure of the Council that is based on your discussion uh during the session. Thank you, Mayor. That’s all I have right now.”

“And thank you for that correction. I’m not used to when we see it again; it’s usually on a regular meeting agenda. So you’re right. I missed that entirely,” said Hughson

Shane Scott tried to remind the Mayor that the Commission was entrusted in taking the language directly to the voters to decide. “I don’t see us doing that with the Human Services Advisory Board.” Scott, “And I was just wondering, why don’t we just leave it up to the people in general….Let’s see if they got the, you know, the tone of the community. And let’s see what you know comes forward and that’s my thoughts on it, Mayor,” said Councilmember Shane Scott.

“Well I think the people that have the most tone of our community is the City Council because we stand for elections,” Hughson.

The CRC met on February 08, February 22, March 01, March 08, March 22, April 05, May 10, and April 12 for hours analyzing data, debating amendments, etc.

The 2021 Mayor and City Council have set a dangerous precedent in place. The Mayor never referenced any of this research nor their minutes and just went with her own opinion. 

Voters should compare the original recommendations to the significant changes to be presented to the ballot discussed Tuesday.

Once upon a time, open government was valued

San Marcos used to have a “Packet Meeting” at Noon on Fridays and did not vote on necessary policy measures.

Notably, an agenda item built-in facilitated transparency, accountability, and public interaction called “Question and Answer Session from the Press and Public.” City Manager Bert Lumbreras changed the Noon on Friday’s “Packet Meeting” to Tuesday at 3:00 PM “Work Sessions” when he was hired. Then, Lumbreras eliminated the “Question and Answer Session from the Press and Public.” 

Sometimes Council will discuss a topic at 3:00 PM “Work Session” and vote on it at 6:00 PM during “Regular Session.” Due to work obligations, residents missing “Work Session” have no time to fact check, mobilize, or prepare the most accurate citizen comments for the “Regular Meeting.”

Nor do voters have a chance to ask questions of the city staff or our elected officials. And, taxpayers are not allowed to present research at the beginning of these “Work Session” meetings for elected officials to make decisions with public input. Nor are they allowed to ask questions at the end as they can in “Regular Meetings.”

There are no provisions in the Charter preventing a topic covered in “Work Session” at 3:00 PM from being voted on at the “Regular Session” at 6:00 PM.

And, in the case of July 06, 2021, in a “Work Session”, the City Council made significant changes to the CRC’s recommendations that they had approved before the voters on the May 18, 2021 “Regular Meeting.”.This important city business should have occurred at a “Regular Meeting” as it always has with past City Councils.

Do as we say, not as we do: Setting a poor standard for transparency 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Marcos City Council has eliminated “Question and Answer Session from the Press and Public” altogether from “Regular Meeting” agendas.

Most of our commissions and boards set a better example than the City Council regarding transparency, accountability, and public interaction.

Commissions and boards valued citizen communication during the COVID-19 pandemic when meetings were held exclusively on zoom, keeping both “Citizen Comment Period” and “Question and Answer Session from the Press and Public.”

For example:

Animal Shelter Advisory Committee, Arts Commission, Cemetery Commission, Charter Review Commission, Citizen Utility Advisory Board, Convention and Visitor Bureau, Ethics Review Commission, Human Services Advisory Board, Main Street Advisory Board, Parking Advisory Board, Parks and Recreation Board, San Marcos Commission on Children and Youth & San Marcos Youth Commission, San Marcos Youth Commission, Senior Citizens Advisory Board, and  Veteran Affairs Advisory Committee.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Neighborhood Commission did have a “Question and Answer Session from the Press and Public,” It was then removed. And after my emails and conversations with city staff, it is being placed back on their standard agenda. 

City Council Committees which contain neither “Citizen Comments” and “Questions from the Press and Public” include:  Criminal Justice Committee (Council Committee and Homelessness Committee (Council Committee)

Also,  boards that impact the budget and property taxes contain neither “Citizen Comments” nor “Questions from the Press and Public.” For example, the  TIRZ # 5 Board has already been exposed to serious transparency issues.

Greater Partnership San Marcos contains neither “Citizen Comments” and “Questions from the Press and Public.” And, this Tuesday, GPSM is asking for additional taxpayer dollars.

 

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