Texas Politics

Welcome to Amarillo, where clapping at council meetings could land you in jail

Kip Billups is escorted out of an Amarillo City Council meeting after refusing to follow Mayor Ginger Nelson’s order for the audience not to clap during public comment.
Kip Billups is escorted out of an Amarillo City Council meeting after refusing to follow Mayor Ginger Nelson’s order for the audience not to clap during public comment. Video screenshot

It could be the clap heard around the state.

That applause — which occurred during an Amarillo City Council meeting and led to the arrest of the person clapping — certainly was loud enough to capture the attention of state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, more than 350 miles away.

At issue was an April 3 council meeting where Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson ordered that a resident be removed for clapping. Nelson had asked the audience not to applaud while others were talking.

Tinderholt sent Nelson a letter asking her not to do that again, saying that clapping is protected by the Constitution.

"I don't normally get involved in something outside my district," he said, noting that he served in the military for two decades fighting to protect people's rights in America. "This was just so egregious.

"I wanted her to know that people are watching, she can't do that and she needs to stop," Tinderholt said. "We work for the people. It's not the other way around. It's really hard for you to be the voice of the people when you are quelling or stopping the people."

But Tinderholt's letter sparked a mini-firestorm, as Nelson turned to Amarillo media to say she never received the letter before it was released to the media and that she believes Empower Texans — an influential conservative group that has worked for years to move the Texas Legislature to the right — encouraged the state representative to write the letter.

"He's clearly being pushed to do this," she told media, noting that she believes Empower Texans works "with intimidation and they do it with a lot of half facts."

Now Tinderholt, who serves on the House Government Transparency and Operations Committee, plans to bring up the issue during the next meeting and see if any legislation needs to be filed to prevent "clapping policies" in the future.

"This can’t continue to happen," he said. "Is there something we need to do to stop this? Constitutional rights are being infringed upon. I need to see if there’s something we can do."

'Clapping policy'

During the April 3 council meeting, Nelson ordered that a resident, Kip Billups, be removed from the audience after he applauded remarks from a speaker who told the mayor she and the council were violating open meetings laws in Texas.

She had already outlined the "clapping policy," saying she wanted to "create an environment that's not intimidating for folks."

When another speaker said Nelson’s statement infringed on the First Amendment, Billups and others again applauded.

Nelson pinpointed Billups.

"You have the choice. You may abide by the clapping policy, which means you will not clap again, or you can choose to leave now," she said. "You, sir, what do you choose? Leave now or abide?"

She also asked Billups to stand. He remained seated and she asked law enforcers to escort him out.

He was escorted out and charged with disrupting a meeting, The Amarillo Pioneer reported.

'Natural for people to clap'

Tinderholt posted a video of this portion of the meeting on his Facebook page

"I understand the need to maintain decorum. If they were standing up and screaming, that’s one thing," he said. "But it’s natural for people to clap."

Nelson has told Amarillo media that the goal of decorum rules is to let everyone have a voice during public meetings.

"The thinking behind it would be that we have a place where everyone's ideas get the same equal respect and, whether you agree with them or not, I believe strongly that we can do that in Amarillo and that we'll be a better city for creating that environment," she said.

Tinderholt said he hopes this is the end of the issue.

"I hope they fix whatever issues they have and it's a done deal," he said. "We need to make sure that this doesn't continue to happen.

"If people look away when this happens, it will spread to other communities and across the state. Someone has to stand up and say, 'Don't do this.'"

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley