Judge, jury and free speech in Fort Bend County

SESHADRI KUMAR
A screen shot of the public comments segment during the Feb. 9 Commissioners Court meeting.
Usually uninteresting public comments segment of the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court, of late, has become a must watch segment, thanks to the aberrant handling of the proceedings by County Judge KP George.

For two consecutive weeks, during public comments, the speakers were abruptly shut down in the middle of their presentation, as the county judge felt the speakers’ comments were not related to the agenda item on which they are supposed to comment.

The county judge appeared to be enforcing the policy of restricting comments to the items listed in the meeting agenda, but the episode turned out to be an unseemly, back and forth exchange, of one talking over the other. Further, the meeting was conducted virtually and the speakers were using remote video connection.

The speakers were broadly criticizing the county’s handling of the pandemic, the mask mandate, lockdown and vaccination and George would cut off the speaker midway, leading to an impression that he would not let anyone air any criticism.

George gives sufficient notice of the policy at the beginning of the public comments.

He says: “I just wanted to remind all participants; we definitely welcome the public comment input specifically on agenda items and we are here to serve you and your voice is important to us. And once again I repeat any participant must speak on specific agenda item you ’ve identified in your public participation form and additionally this platform is for a meaningful conversation and no one can demean any individual or group or insults that honesty and integrity of someone else. The rules are available to everyone on County website.”

Whether the county judge was within his rights to curtail the public or not and if the county judge suppressed free speech will depend on the interpretation of the specific comments in question. It may be a subjective decision by the county judge in deeming certain comments as unrelated to the agenda item, but that could be legitimate and may not violate the free speech rights of an individual.

On Feb. 2, the first speaker, Seda Hambarchian, said, ”I need to voice my concern about my county ever since this so-called pandemic started back in March 2020,” listed a long list of grievances.

She concluded: I also understand the county court’s job is to carry out state government and federal government’s orders and our job as we the people is to question our elected representatives and officials and request this to be done in a more ethical way. Thank you for your time and opportunity to exercise my first amendment.”

But, the next speaker Surekha Patil, was not that lucky. Patil opened here remarks, saying: “Thanks for the opportunity to talk today. I come from the family of doctors and all my Indian friends, I’m in touch with them, they’re all doctors, they have treated the COVID-19 patients successfully. I rather believe the observational studies of those doctors who actually treated their patients early than the randomized controlled trial studies. In India, the state government and the local government. ...”

George cut her off at this point, after asking her to cite the agenda item on which she was speaking. She could not immediately cite the number. She wanted some time, but George said no and moved on to the next speaker.

The next speaker, Bonnie Anderson, turned the table against George and said: “I’m talking about agenda item 27 (c) and by the way, I don’t see anything in the rules that says you can’t go back to another public speaker.”

Anderson added: “Anyway, so I’m talking about 27 (c) and it looks like I received some clarification on the funds that they were not for the rental programs they were for bailing out the small businesses that were taking care of but like I said last week, it still doesn’t justify destroying an economy and mandating the businesses shut down so that we just have to bail them out later on. It is irresponsible and desperate decision made without doing any research and here we are a year later the court is still closed you’re still promoting lockdown policies, we’re pushing these vaccines.... “I don’t understand the credentials of Dr. Mintor. I don’t know if she has a career in politics that she’s trying to promote but if she’s really a doctor. ... “I don’t understand why we’re pushing vaccines, but we don’t promote or push the vitamins like the first speaker said we don’t promote the treatment. People get better within 12 hours once they get on doses of hydroxychloroquine, so I want to ask the court and the commissioners when will we stop, this is a year later, when will we stop this lock down, fear of spread, get your vaccine and then, bail everybody out when we destroy the economy and start absolutely promoting good health practices. I think you need to find somebody to replace Dr. Mintor because, I have no idea what she’s doing. None of these policies are based in science, they are not rooted in fact.”

Anderson was allowed to speak for her allotted time without interruption.

The following speaker, Jim Preston, made an unconsciously humorous comment. The agenda item read ”Discussion on the Epic Center complex.” That item was meant for closed session discussion. No background or supporting information was available with the agenda or elsewhere.

Preston said: “I have some questions and concerns on agenda item 30 number two CARES Act funding distribution. “Is there a website we can visit to see how and where the money is spent?

“Number three, development of the Fort Bend County epidemic complex, what is this? Why do we need it and how much are we spending on it?”

The speaker misread “Epic Center” as Epidemic Center, in the context of the current pandemic and gave his comments.

Technically, his comments had nothing to do with the agenda item, yet he was allowed to complete his comment.

If George had stopped the comments, then he would have drawn focus on the real agenda item, “Epic Center” that is shrouded in secrecy.

Now, move on to the Feb. 9 meeting.

Surekha Patil, who was stopped from completing her comments the previous week, came prepared with the agenda item

Patil said “Yes, I would like to talk about item 24g this is about the rental program for the COVID 19 assistance. I want to know or why it is necessary when there is a too much spending going on already.

I feel it’s not required and also in India where I come from, the state government and local government district level actually prepare the kits with the preventive medicines and supplements and distribute to the general public. They also tested only symptomatic patients, there was no mass testing. I’m in touch with all my friends and family who are all doctors and have them...”

George could not bear it any longer. “Hold on ma’am one second. Do you have anything to talk about the specific item.. this is money moving from one fund to the other. Do you have anything to talk about because you have to stick with the specific agenda item? Please go ahead and I will give you one more opportunity, please. Talk about this item.”

The speaker responded: “Yes, I’m talking about 24G. What I would like to rather believe that observational studies of the doctors who actually treated their patients early than the randomized controls...

George had enough. “Please go ahead and cut that person off. You have to talk about specific items. So, let’s move on.”

Ironically, an earlier speaker, Vishalakshi M., spoke on the same item 24G, dealing with rental assistance from a federal grant and the word COVID-19 had been included in the agenda item, though it is not clear if the agenda item had anything to do with COVID-19 related rental assistance. Any way, she spoke for three minutes and George did not interrupt her.

Another featured speaker, Bonne Anderson, had done her homework.

She was to speak on agenda item 12B “Pay Application No. 1 (Bob Lutts Library) in the amount of $105,084 to Gutier for roof replacement regarding 6 Roof Replacements.”

Anderson said: So this is the roof replacement for the Bob Lutts library and this is the public library located in Fulshear off FM 359, it’s a library actually near and dear to my heart because I’ve taken my children here many times to explore the books and it’s on the story reading times, but unfortunately this library is closed and it’s been closed for almost a year.

It’s surrounded by open businesses. Included in cafes and grocery stores yet this and all other county libraries remain closed. I did speak with these staff at the Bob Lutts Library yesterday and they are aware of no plans in the near future any time in the near future to open."

She continued: So let’s just talk for a minute about why libraries are important to our important partnerships of a healthy community....

Here comes the exchange between George and Anderson: “Can I stop you and we are talking about replacing the roof and you’re talking about a whole different subject.

So talking about the subject and I would appreciate it. Excuse me, if you have different.

No, no, no, listen.

I’m not talking about it, let me finish.

So no one let’s let’s move on ...

No, I’m talking about ....

Charles, please go ahead let’s move on to the next person.”

After this frustrating public comment, George quickly moved to the next agenda item, only to be intervened by Commissioner Andy Meyers, reminding George that the commissioners could make any public announcements at this time.

George quickly apologized for the oversight and what followed was another grievance from a speaker who was not allowed to speak because he called in after 10 a.m.

Meyers said: “ First of all, I must have missed the meeting in which we changed the policy to require that public comments application had to be in by 10 o’clock. I got a call from a constituent who had said a request to the judge’s office asking you for permission to speak on an item. And since he did not have it in by 10 o’clock, he was denied. So obviously, he’s somewhat upset about it. He has asked me and I’m a little uncomfortable doing it, to read into the record, his comments. And so I am going to do that at this moment and second of all, one of the things I’ll be doing is bringing forward to the court a more specific plan with regard to public comments that comply with state law.”

Then he read the comments of Wes Noonan who spoke on the Epic Center complex.

"If taxpayers money is going to be spent on this type of deal then the taxpayers need to have a direct vote on the issue and then the court needs to respect the will of the people. ...The Fort Bend commissioners court needs to be transparent and how this is proceeding and have a public discussion. ... I am respectfully asking a commission’s court the whole transparent full discussion on this moving forward. If not, we expect plenty of freedom of information requests to get that info out up to the voters."

On Feb. 11, George called for an emergency session of commissioners court. The only agenda item read:

“Take all appropriate action on request to create vaccine administration related positions as presented by Health & Human Services Director to ensure the timely and efficient administration of vaccine in all precincts of Fort Bend County. (Fund: FEMA-PA Grants)”

The backup information said: The Health and Human Services (HHS) Department is requesting additional temporary staffing to support our COVID-19 vaccination clinics. These positions would be funded out of a grant and would not be supported by the county."

Three people spoke during public comments, all related to COVID-19 and vaccines, but vaguely related to the agenda item. And they were not stopped.

Even if they wanted to speak on the agenda item, there was little information available, so much so, the county attorney had to advise the commissioners to be a little more explicit and make a motion with some details. Then the county officials scrambled to gather some specific details, like 12. 5 full time equivalent employees will be hired, for however long needed and after further scrambling, cited the cost of the program as $1.2 million, for one year.

County Attorney Bridgette Smith-Lawson, responded to a query from this writer. She cited following:

Government Code 551.007 (c) allows the court to adopt reasonable rules regarding the right to address the body:

“(c) A governmental body may adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body under this section, including rules that limit the total amount of time that a member of the public may address the body on a given item.”

In addition the following is an excerpt from the local rules which have been adopted:

Section IV., E. It is not the intention of the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court to provide a public forum for discussion of non-agenda matters, nor for the demeaning of any individual or group.”

The county attorney reserved her comments on the specific instances where the speakers were cut off as she was not present during the public comments segment. She would consult her staff who were present before making any comments.

It is pertinent to note another section of the code, which reads:

Section 551.007 (b), a governmental body shall allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda for an open meeting of the body to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item. Further, under subsection (e), a governmental body may not prohibit public criticism of the governmental body, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program, or service. This subsection does not apply to public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law."