Fort Worth resident Bob Willoughby has attended City Council meetings for the past eight years to exercise his civic rights and voice his concerns.
When the council changed its meeting schedule this month, he wasn’t happy.
“This whole thing is to keep the public uninformed,” Willoughby, 63, said.
But Mayor Mattie Parker says the change was made to prioritize efficiency and ensure transparency for residents and council members alike.
The changes include scheduling work sessions and agenda meetings on different weeks and having separate public comment meetings dedicated exclusively to hearing comments and concerns from the public.
Before, staff work sessions were on council days with public presentations heard at the end. With the stacked days, council members sometimes didn’t have time to discuss some items on the agendas, and residents had to wait until the end of the day to have a chance to voice their concerns, Parker said.
Parker said she wanted to resolve that problem.
City attorney Sarah Fullenwider and acting city secretary Ronald Gonzalez presented a new proposed meeting schedule for the council during a work session meeting Sept. 21. Their proposal, with revisions from the council, was implemented Nov. 2.
“This new schedule is so much nicer,” Parker said. “You now have fresh minds that come on those two Tuesdays a month that are dedicated to public comment, allowing any citizen to come speak about anything they want to.”
Parker wanted to find the best way to do business on behalf of such a large, growing city while still meeting the needs of residents. She believes that mission was accomplished, but Willoughby doesn’t agree.
“They gave us two nights a week, but they put us in quarantine,” Willoughby said. “They moved the time from 7 o’clock to 6 o’clock. No one asked for that. Why’d they do that? They put us at 6 to make it harder for people to get there.”
Previous Fort Worth City Council meeting schedule
- Work session at 3 p.m.
- Council meeting at 7 p.m.
Once-a-month day meetings:
- Work session at 8:30 a.m.
- Council meeting at 10 a.m.
The plan originally proposed at the Sept. 21 work session meeting was to have the commentary time at 5:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. But District 6 council member Jared Williams pointed out during the meeting that 5:30 might be too early, given that many residents get off work at 5 p.m. and may get caught in rush-hour traffic on their way to the meetings.
New Fort Worth City Council meeting schedule
First and third Tuesdays:
- Work session at 1 p.m.
- Public comment meeting at 6 p.m.
- Agenda meeting, which includes zoning cases, at 6 p.m.
- Agenda meeting at 10 a.m.
With that in mind, the council moved the public comment period to 6 p.m. to allow residents more time to arrive. If a resident doesn’t make it on time to speak when their name is called but shows up later during the meeting, it’s up to the mayor’s discretion to allow the person to talk.
District 4 council member Cary Moon also clarified during the Sept. 21 meeting that residents are still allowed to comment on specific agenda items during City Council meetings, which they can do by filling out a speaker card in advance. The designated public comment meetings simply allow residents exclusive time to voice commentary about whatever topic concerns them.
With the new schedule, Fort Worth is still the most accessible large city in Texas with the most time allotted for public comment, Parker said.
“We haven’t taken away any accessibility in that way. In fact, I think it’s been made better for residents,” she said.
Before the new meeting schedule was implemented, an average of seven people spoke during the public presentation time during City Council meetings this year, according to an unofficial count of the city council meetings’ minutes. In most instances, the same handful of people commented. Willoughby appeared before the council 19 times this year before the Nov. 2 change.
During the first public comment meeting Nov. 2, only two residents used the presentation time to comment, according to the meeting minutes. One of them was Willoughby. Two additional people completed public presentation cards but were not present at the meeting.
During the second public comment meeting Nov. 16, eight residents commented.
Other Texas cities of a similar size to Fort Worth, conduct their council meetings and public commentary periods similarly to Fort Worth’s new schedule.
In San Antonio, the city council allows 60 minutes for public commentary at 5 p.m. after their work session meetings. In El Paso, the city council allows 60 minutes for public commentary before their meetings. Fort Worth City Council limits each public presentation speaker to three minutes.
In such large cities, there’s a lot to discuss and decide at City Council meetings, and Fort Worth’s previous meeting schedule wasn’t conducive to getting that amount of work done, Parker said.
The mayor also pointed out that Fort Worth’s current City Council is the youngest and most diverse council in the city’s history. And they have families and obligations outside of their jobs just like everyone else.
Parker has a 5-year-old and 11-year-old waiting for her at home, and other City Council members also have children. Council obligations should be reasonable enough to maintain a work-life balance, she said, and the schedule change was just a small step to reach that balance.
“I want to be able to finish this job and say to other women my age in a similar position in life, ‘You can do this job. It will not be easy, but we’re making it more conducive to the normal person that juggles life and family,’” Parker said. “And, frankly, it wasn’t that way when I started.”
Although the new schedule is less than a month old, Parker said, it’s proven beneficial so far. Work-life balance for council members and staffers has improved already, she said.
With the previous schedule, council members and staff were required to stay at City Hall late into the night in order to hear public commentary. That’s their job, Parker said, but she questioned whether staying late was the best use of anyone’s time.
“I would have never voted yes (for the change) if I didn’t get this resounding thanks from city staff who have felt like our process was antiquated for no reason for a long time,” Parker said.
If council members decide in the future that this schedule is no longer working efficiently, they can vote to reverse it or create a new schedule. However, Parker said, that’s unlikely to happen soon because the policy was changed with permanency in mind.
Fort Worth Report fellow Cecilia Lenzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.