We regularly use this space to encourage you, as a resident of Huntsville or Walker County, to get involved in the civic life of your community.
This week, we want to focus on one way you can do that: through speaking publicly to the members of the Walker County Commissioners’ Court, the Huntsville City Council or the Huntsville Independent School District Board of Trustees.
These governing bodies set aside part of every regular meeting to hear from area residents through a process called public comment or citizens’ comment. Lately, we’ve seen a number of residents take advantage of that opportunity to make their views heard regarding the local Confederate monument. We expect more people will want to speak out, too, including many who may never have approached a governing body before.
So here’s how to do that. First we’ll share some general tips to help you understand how the process works at any meeting. Then, details will follow regarding the specific procedures at each of these three governing bodies. Some of these procedures have been altered this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic, so be sure to review them even if you have addressed officials in a public meeting before.
First, do your research. It’s important that you make sure you understand the current circumstances and relevant regulations before you suggest something needs to be changed; otherwise, you might find out that what you want to propose is already the case or is in the works. You can call your local officials to ask for information, and often you can also research your question on municipal websites.
Next, sign up to speak at a meeting. Details of how to do that are below. Once you’re signed up, pay attention to the meeting agenda so you know when your time comes. Look for “public comment” or similar language on the agenda, usually near the beginning, and listen for when the meeting chair calls for you. You may be asked to step up to a podium or microphone so your comments can be recorded; keep in mind that anything you say at a public meeting becomes part of the public record. Start with your name and address so the board members know that you are part of their district or municipal boundaries. Then make your presentation. It doesn’t need to be long; in fact, most meetings limit each speaker to five minutes tops. Short and sweet is great. Note that the total time for public comment may also be limited, so if a lot of people sign up at one meeting, you may not get a chance to speak. If that happens, consider emailing your thoughts to board members instead.
Finally, keep in mind that local officials may not be able to talk much about the issue you’re bringing up. By law, they’re only allowed to state factual information or describe existing policies if your topic isn’t already on the agenda. Someone might follow up with you one-on-one or the item might be added to a future agenda.
WALKER COUNTY COMMISSIONERS’ COURT
Walker County residents wishing to research information regarding county matters can go to the county’s website at www.co.walker.tx.us/commissioners. Phone numbers and email links for each county commissioner are available there, too, as well as a precinct map so you can identify which commissioner represents your area.
All residents wishing to address the commissioners’ court should fill out a public participation form ahead of time and come prepared to speak for no more than five minutes.
The form was developed by the court and is available on the commissioners’ court website or from Elizabeth Jan, administrative assistant at the Walker County Judge’s Office. It asks your name and contact information, whether you represent a particular group or organization, if there’s a specific agenda item you wish to address and whether you’re generally for or against the item under discussion. You should return the completed form to the county judge’s office.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the commissioners’ court has changed locations to the Walker County Storm Shelter and has limited how many people can be in the room at once. It’s livestreaming its meetings online and accepting public comment via teleconference as well as in person. Those wishing to address the court via teleconference should call 936-436-4910 or email Elizabeth Jan, administrative assistant with the Walker County Judge’s Office, at firstname.lastname@example.org at least an hour before the meeting starts to sign up — and don’t forget to fill out the court’s public comment form. Once you’re signed up to speak, you can participate via Zoom, with the link found on the commissioners court’s website. Those wishing to address the court in person should sign up by turning in a completed public participation form to the county judge’s office at least 15 minutes before the meeting.
HUNTSVILLE CITY COUNCIL
If you’re a Huntsville resident, you can call your city council member to ask for information and you can research Huntsville city ordinances as well as other information on the city’s website, huntsvilletx.us. If something you want to research isn’t available online, go ahead and call or email the city offices or your elected official to ask for the information. The city provides a form for public information requests on its website at www.huntsvilletx.gov/forms.aspx?FID=64
City council usually holds its meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. If you’d like to speak to council, first sign up with the city secretary’s office by noon on the Tuesday before the next week’s council meeting. If you don’t make the noon deadline, council rules still allow for you to speak if the council votes to hear you, so it’s worth calling the city secretary’s office at 936-291-5413 anyway.
When you sign up, you’ll need to fill out a request to address council, available online at https://www.huntsvilletx.gov/FormCenter/Citizen-Participation-8/Citizen-Participation-Request-53 or from the city secretary’s office in the Huntsville City Hall. It asks your name and contact information and what you want to speak about.
HUNTSVILLE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
If you’re a parent of a HISD student, you’ve probably already visited the district’s website, huntsville-isd.org. Information about HISD’s board is posted there at www.huntsville-isd.org/Domain/833, including email addresses for each board member.
Anyone who wants to speak during a school board meeting may do so for up to three minutes. You’ll need to sign up before the meeting starts. Make sure to allow time to fill out the district’s public forum signup sheet, available at the meeting. It asks for your name and contact information, what organization you’re representing (if any) and what topic or agenda item you’d like to speak about. Note that comments directly criticizing a specific school employee are prohibited during public meetings.