Speaking Limits Lead to Protest
The Denton County Commissioners Court have put a limit on the number of citizens able to speak before a meeting. Once the number is exceeded, citizens need to wait until the end of the agenda to have their voice heard. Steven Leach has had enough and is organizing a sit-in protest.
“Since I have the responsibility and authority to preside over Commissioners Court, it was my decision to make the change,” County Commissioners Judge Mary Horn said. “I did instruct the Aid to the Court to put signage at the table where people sign up to speak so they would know before the meeting started that this was going to be the process.”
The number of citizens able to speak before a meeting is five. The limit was put into action on the meeting Tuesday, Sep. 19. It is on a first-come-first-served basis.
Horn said she made the decision because the majority of the people speaking had already made their point by speaking in previous meetings.
“Actually, if you will check with the Office of the Attorney General, we are not required to even have public comment,” Horn said. “Obviously, I don't agree with that position.”
Horn said that she wanted staff to be able to handle the other duties that they need to attend to, but still have public comment at the end of the meeting.
“Commissioners Court members and staff always have other matters to discuss and vote on,” said Horn. “I wanted staff to be able to return to their respective offices to handle their duties and then give the opportunity to anyone remaining that still wanted to be heard to do so.”
Confederate Monument Protests
Willie Hudspeth has been protesting to have the confederate monument removed from the square for over 18 years and still is actively protesting it on Sundays.
With the events earlier this year in Charlottesville, it has brought more attention to the Confederate monument in Denton. More people are getting involved in their local government, which is part of the reason why it is taking more time for citizens speaking at the beginning of the meeting. Many people in attendance continue to address the monument.
“We elected you so you could listen to us,” Hudspeth said. “Not the other way around.”
The meeting still is open to hearing citizens’ voices, but only five before the start of the meeting. County Commissioners Judge Mary Horn stated that you will be hearing more about the Confederate Monument in the near future.
“We know now the issue has changed,” Hudspeth said. “The Confederate [monument] is still there, we still want to do something about that, but now the message is infringing on our rights as we see it.”
Hudspeth said you have to be careful how you communicate the subject, but that he and Bryce Goodman (a protester against the Confederate monument) see it as just something you shouldn’t do: limit citizens' voices at the start of the meeting.
“We don’t know if the people there were for or against, or even there for, the monument,” Goodman said, “They could've been there for any reason, but because of [Horn] and her beliefs they were silenced too.”
Hudspeth said he will be running for Judge and Bryce Goodman will be running for District Four.
"We're working on getting those position papers created where it will say, 'Here am I, Willie Hudspeth, and here is what I am going to run for.'" Hudson said he made up his mind; this is what he is going to do.
Struggles to Speak
Samantha Hobson, a county commissioner court regular attendee, said, “Before it was that you could speak for three minutes. Then a couple of weeks back, she changed it from three minutes to two minutes if there was more than fifteen people. So basically what it is now is the first people who come and fill out forms, so it is first-come-first-served, they will be able to speak right before the county agenda starts. Then anyone who wants to stay and comment can do so at the end of the agenda."
Hobson said that she goes to the county commissioner court to stay informed with what is happening locally.
"A lot [of citizens] feel and are off-put by this and angry because in the past month, Mary Horn has not once, but twice, changed the rules on public comment,” Hobson said. "I think if people who are wanting to be more involved in their local government process, regardless for whatever the reason is–whether it is because of the confederate monument or it is just county budget–then they should have the right."
Hobson said that the limitation on speakers at the start of the meetings makes it harder for people to have their voices heard, as they may not have time to stay for the entirety of the agenda.
"People that work, or maybe are a single parent or a student that may have class during that time, it is kind of difficult,” Hobson said. “There are always emails and phone calls, but there is something about being there in person."
Hobson said that one of the nice parts about speaking in person during a commissioners court meeting is that you get your voice heard and taped on video.
"I can submit a comment card which would then become part of public record, but...there is always the chance of if it gets lost or I won’t be on public record on that video." Hobson said. "There needs to be a policy and procedure for anything that is changed at the county commissioners court. That there is notification of that whether it is twenty-four hours of it being posted on the website or something."
"What [Horn] is doing for us and everyone in Denton County,” Bryce Goodman said, “is saying that your voice is not as important as mine and your time is not as important as mine."
Goodman said he does not see why they do not say anything on social media about the changes they are making on public speaking until citizens get to the meeting and see the change.
Steven Leach, Indivisible Denton steering committee member, said, "I was there filling out my comment form personally as they stepped out in the hall to inform us all only the first five people would be able to speak until the entire agenda was heard."
Leach said it was immediately upsetting and that there were people who left because they couldn’t stay for the full meeting to have their voice heard.
"We literally had two or three people get up and leave after the first five people spoke because they realized they were not going to be able to have the time to have their voice heard." Leach said, “Which I think is completely unfair to those individuals.”
Leach said that he thinks this is unfair because at any time, any specific group can show up early and wait in line to turn in their comment cards, and so any specific group can shut out any other group in having their voice heard until the end of the meeting.
"If every single citizen of Denton County wants to get up and speak to you [as an elected official]," Leach said, "t is your responsibility to hear their voices."
Leach said it is our responsibility as a citizen to make our voice heard in the public form. This Tuesday there will be a sit-in protest from 8:45am to 9:30am. He is going to try to get as many people out across different areas of the political spectrum.
“This is not just one side about one issue anymore,” Leach said, “This is something everyone can come together on.”
Leach said he understands everyone has a right to have their voice heard.
The protest is titled "Make It Easier Sit In" on Facebook and will take place at the historical courthouse on the Denton Square.
County Commissioners Judge Mary Horn made the decision to change the rules of public comment so that after five comments, the agenda is to be completed first before continuing with the rest of public comments. The decision was made so that the commissioners can take care of business first as so many people signing up had already made their points heard by speaking once or twice.
Header image by Mateo Granados