An attempt to restore public comments to the top of Mercedes City Commission meetings failed this week by an overwhelming majority.
Newly elected Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez placed an item on the agenda of Tuesday’s meeting to move the open forum section — which is typically when the public can address the commission — from the end of meeting agendas to “line item 5.”
The city previously caught flak after eliminating open forum entirely in January 2018 in favor of implementing a “citizen action form” on its website. Benavidez was critical of the move at the time, saying then that the online complaints “don’t give you an opportunity to voice it publicly,” arguing the “only person that knows about the complaint is yourself and the city,” The Monitor previously reported.
Mercedes restored the public forum section after a video of a resident speaking in the commission chamber while commissioners left an October 2018 meeting went viral and spawned backlash. Lauren Pitts had been attempting to speak about public safety after her friend, 19-year-old David Gobellan, was killed by a motorist as he rode his bicycle along an unlit Mercedes street.
At the time, Mayor Pro-tem Rubén “Chano” Guajardo referred to the backlash that led to the restoring of open forum as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Guajardo cosigned Tuesday’s agenda item to move open forum back to the top of meetings — his named appearing next to Benavidez’s on the agenda. However, when Mayor Henry Hinojosa called for a vote, Guajardo — along with the mayor and two other commissioners — voted against Benavidez’s proposal.
Had it passed, open forum would have returned to a spot most governmental bodies reserve for public comment: just after the invocation and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Speaking Friday, Guajardo said he cosigned the agenda item because he felt Benavidez, as a newly elected commissioner, had the right to be heard; he took the opposite position of his vote by agreeing that the item should be toward the top of the proceedings.
“Do I believe that it should be at the back end? Absolutely not,” Guajardo said. “It should be at the forefront of the meeting.”
However, Guajardo said a persistent sense of community anger means moving the timing of open forum “is not in the best interest of Mercedes,” a sentiment he also shared about the commission’s earlier decision to remove open forum entirely.
“It’s too much anger in our community because of the unfortunate situation with the (school) district and things of that nature,” Guajardo said.
Too, Guajardo blamed a small group of residents who regularly attend meetings and speak during open forum with creating distractions to the detriment of the conducting of city business.
“There’s a lack of respect,” Guajardo said.
“Unfortunately, the ones that are a little bit — or the loudest — they’re the ones that are drowning out all the other positive things that are coming out of our community,” he said of the group of two to three residents whom he also said have “nothing but displeasure for the way the city is being run.”
For Commissioner Benavidez, who campaigned on improving public transparency and bettering the lines of communication between residents and the commission, Tuesday’s vote was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected.
“I was not surprised. That’s what I can say,” Benavidez said Friday.
The newly minted commissioner also chided his peer, Guajardo, for stepping out of the commission chamber just before the item came up for discussion. “It was concerning because the commissioner who cosigned for that item stepped out just before that item was called,” Benavidez said.
While Guajardo was away from the dais, Place 1 Commissioner Leo Villarreal motioned to not approve moving the open forum section. Place 3 Commissioner Cristella “Cris” De Leon seconded the motion.
Guajardo returned to the chamber in time to vote on the item and take part in some discussion, but only after his political opponent in the upcoming Place 4 runoff, former Commissioner Jose Gomez, spoke from the audience to ask City Attorney Anthony Troiani if the commission should wait for Guajardo’s return since he had cosigned the item.
Troiani agreed they should, and a few seconds later, the mayor moved forward with the discussion when Guajardo re-entered the chamber.
Benavidez acknowledged the public animosity commissioners often face from residents, but implored the commission to restore open forum to the top of meetings, saying taxpayers are high on the city’s “organizational chart” and that any out-of-order comments can be regulated.
“Our organizational chart has the citizens at the very top. That’s the structure of Mercedes’ organization,” Benavidez said during the meeting.
He echoed those sentiments after the meeting. “We should listen to the taxpayers’ concerns or needs before conducting business with their tax dollars,” he said.
Guajardo argued that negative commentary at the top of meetings could make a poor impression on those wishing to do business in the city.
“With respect to everybody, we’re not going to shut our people down; we’re going to hear them, it’s just going to be at the matter of where,” Guajardo said, before adding that residents still have the freedom to speak on “whatever item they wish to.”
However, that very point came up for debate later in the meeting, when one resident tried to speak about moving the open forum section.
Just before the commission retired to executive session, they paused to hear from residents who had signed up to participate in open forum. The mayor recognized Esmeralda Guerrero, who began by asking Benavidez for clarification of what had occurred during the discussion of the item.
The city attorney interrupted to caution the commission and Guerrero that they could not speak about items listed on the agenda, but could only speak in general terms about issues.
As Guerrero resumed speaking to say she preferred to have open forum at the top of meetings, Troiani again stopped her.
“That was something that was voted on, so you’re not to talk about items that were brought up on the agenda,” Troiani said.
“If you have a general concern about something, then you can raise that, but you can’t come up here and talk about what has already happened.”