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In order to ensure the safety of citizens during the national COVID-19 public health emergency, Edinburg City Hall on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, became closed to all walk-in traffic, although all city services will remain, and are accessible to the public, through email, phone, online and drive-through services.

Featured: In order to ensure the safety of citizens during the national COVID-19 public health emergency, Edinburg City Hall on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, became closed to all walk-in traffic, although all city services will remain, and are accessible to the public, through email, phone, online and drive-through services.

Photograph Courtesy CARY ZAYAS

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Even during COVID-19 emergency, Edinburg protects the public’s right to comment during  city council sessions, says City Attorney Omar Ochoa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Even during the COVID-19 emergency, with the life-saving restrictions on the number of individuals who can gather at the same time in one place, the Edinburg City Council, which includes the mayor, continues to protect the public’s right to comment during the usually-crowded city council sessions, says City Attorney Omar Ochoa.

The Edinburg City Council’s meetings are held in the City Council Chamber, located on the first floor of Edinburg City Hall. However, in order to ensure the safety of citizens during the national COVID-19 public health emergency, Edinburg City Hall on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, became closed to all walk-in traffic, although all city services will remain, and are accessible to the public through email, phone, online and drive-through services.

Throughout most of the world, COVID-19 – which is an infectious disease caused by a coronavirus – has been rapidly spreading mainly through person-to-person contact. The early symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

The virus can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, septic shock, and death. If a person notices these severe symptoms in themself or a loved one, they must get medical attention right away.

https://www.webmd.com/lung/what-is-covid-19#1

But under a new policy drafted by Ochoa, and supported by the mayor and city council, residents are able to still share their views during the public comment segment at the beginning of the meetings, and before action is taken on any other item on the agenda.

The Edinburg City Council meetings are broadcast live on Spectrum Cable Channel 10 and by logging on to: 

https://cityofedinburg.com/departments/public_information/live_ecn-12_television_stream.php

Leading into the Tuesday, March 24, 2020 meeting, the Edinburg City Council’s agenda, both in print form and online, advised residents how they can still provide their comments without coming to the meeting, and potentially risking exposure to, or unknowingly spreading, the very infectious COVID-19.

“The Edinburg Mayor and City Council take very seriously the right of the people to address the city leadership during city council meetings, and in keeping with the intent and the spirit of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” said Ochoa. “As such, until the COVID-19 public health emergency is resolved, we have come up with a way for residents to continue to have their voices heard during city council meetings.”

On the front page of city council agendas, the following instructions are now provided to help people address the Edinburg City Council without having to show up in person:

“The Mayor and City Council allow for a specific portion of the City Council Meeting to be dedicated to public comments. Public Comments are limited to three (3) minutes. Because of the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the City has established a telephone number for residents who desire to make a public comment during the meeting. 

“If you would like to participate under public comments you must submit a request beginning at 9:00 a.m. the day of the meeting by (a) sending an email to [email protected] or (b) calling the City Secretary Department at 956-388-8204. All requests must be received no later than 30 minutes before the start of the City Council meeting. 

“Your request should include your name, address, and telephone number. We ask for everyone’s cooperation in following this procedure.”

For decades, Edinburg’s city leadership, just like the constituents they serve, have been strong supporters of the people’s right to know what their local city government is doing, said Ochoa. 

“From publicizing in advance, then recording, broadcasting, and saving the videos of the public meetings of the Edinburg City Council and its jobs-creation arm, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, to making easily available the full agenda packets of those public sessions, anyone can know what their city government is planning to do, and has done, in the name of its citizens,” he emphasized.

Those government transparency actions were taken without being required to do so by any state law, the City of Edinburg, through its website, https://cityofedinburg.com, features the full agenda packets of the Edinburg City Council. The full agenda packets of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation are available at https://edinburgedc.com/agendas/.

“Often, the city’s agenda meeting packets are hundreds of pages in length, but any person can see all of the information and materials that are being reviewed, discussed, and proposed to be acted upon by the mayor and city councilmembers,” Ochoa noted. “Just as important, through the Internet, there is no charge to anyone to access this public information.” 

OPEN GOVERNMENT AWARENESS DURING CORONAVIRUS EMERGENCY

The coronavirus emergency is creating trying times for public officials and citizens when it come to open government. Here are reminders and resources for complying with Texas transparency laws during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Gov. Greg Abbott has suspended one portion of the Texas Open Meetings Act dealing with public gatherings during a videoconference or telephone meeting of a public body, but all other aspects of the law remain in force. The public still must have sufficient notice of and access to a governmental body’s public meeting, even if it’s a virtual meeting.

The governor’s waiver issued March 16, 2020, effective only for a 30-day emergency period, removes the requirement to provide a physical gathering space for the public to watch or listen to the meeting; however, the public must be given the ability to watch or listen to the meeting and interact during public comment periods. The waiver also means a quorum of the governing body doesn’t have to be physically present in one place.

Leaders with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas have noticed some confusion among public officials on how to comply with the Open Meetings Act during a virtual meeting. To answer questions, the Texas Attorney General’s Office has established an open meetings hotline at 1-888-672-6787 and an email for questions: [email protected]. FIOT leaders encourage public officials to make use of these resources.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Information Resources has issued this guide to help governments with technology issues as they comply with the Open Meetings Act.

The public should also be aware that many governmental bodies, as allowed under newly established law, are sending “catastrophe notices” to the Texas Attorney General’s Office to suspend requirements of the Texas Public Information Act for a seven-day period if they are affected by a catastrophe. Texas governments of all sizes are currently sending notices, which must be published on the attorney general’s website. 

A government can also file an extension notice for another seven-day period. Here’s the link where you can see the notices: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open-government/governmental-bodies/catastrophe-notice/submitted-catastrophe-notices

On another front, the Attorney General’s Office has issued a reminder about how to calculate business days when responding to a Texas Public Information Act request. It should be noted that these business day calculation rules were in place before the COVID-19 emergency.

GOV. ABBOTT ALLOWS VIRTUAL AND TELEPHONIC OPEN MEETINGS TO MAINTAIN GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday, March 16, 2020 acted to maintain government transparency and continued government operations while reducing face-to-face contact for government open meetings. As Texas works to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the governor granted the Office of the Attorney General’s request for suspension of certain open-meeting statutes. This temporary suspension will allow for telephonic or videoconference meetings of governmental bodies that are accessible to the public in an effort to reduce in-person meetings that assemble large groups of people.

“Even as the State of Texas takes precautionary measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, we also have a responsibility to maintain government transparency,” said Abbott. “With today’s action, Texas is reducing non-essential in-person contact for a limited period, while ensuring that state and local government entities continue to work to fulfill necessary functions and with full transparency for the people of Texas. I urge state and local officials to do their part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding meetings that bring people into large group settings.”

In accordance with section 418.016 of the Texas Government Code, Abbott suspended various provisions that require government officials and members of the public to be physically present at a specified meeting location. This temporary suspension will leave important open-meeting protections in place:

• Members of the public will be entitled to participate and address the governmental body during any telephonic or videoconference meeting.

• To hold a telephonic or videoconference meeting, a governmental body must post a written notice that gives the public a way to participate remotely, such as a toll-free dial-in number, and that includes an electronic copy of any agenda packet that officials will consider at the meeting.

• A governmental body must provide the public with access to a recording of any telephonic or video conference meeting.

State and local officials who have questions about open-meeting requirements after this suspension should submit them to the Office of the Attorney General via e-mail at [email protected], or by leaving a message at (888) 672-6787. Officials with questions about teleconference and videoconference capabilities offered by the Texas Department of Information Resources should visit dir.texas.gov or call (512) 475-4700. Officials who hold videoconference meetings are encouraged to provide for participation via telephone for members of the public without video conferencing capability. If officials are not holding a telephonic or videoconference meeting, all open-meeting requirements apply.

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Kelly Shannon, Executive Director for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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