A pair of Linn County school boards are pondering new restrictions on their public comment procedures.
Although we understand the valid reasons why the boards are looking at tightening their public comment rules, this can be tricky business; trustees don't want to leave the impression that they hold public opinion in low regard.
At its Dec. 14 meeting, the Lebanon School Board considered adopting new restrictions to its public comment procedures and will return to the topic at another time. Meanwhile, at its Dec. 11 meeting, the Greater Albany Public Schools board briefly discussed whether it should impose new limits on public comment.
The boards have legitimate reasons for at least exploring these options: Although board meetings don't always draw big crowds, a contentious issue can lead to a packed house in which all the attendees want their three or five minutes to hold forth. And, at some point in a long meeting, all the points to be made (on every side of an issue) have been thoroughly explored and all that remains is tiresome repetition that stretches already-lengthy meetings past their breaking points.
We understand that butt-testing marathon meetings are part and parcel of doing the public business in the mid-valley. But, at some point, meetings that begin to close in on the midnight hour also serve as a detriment to public participation. Boards are completely justified in searching for ways that prevent at least some of these marathons without unduly short-cutting the public's right to weigh in.
But it can be hard to find the right balance, and so the boards in Lebanon and Albany should proceed with caution.
Complicating matters somewhat is recent legal guidance from the Oregon School Boards Association, which is recommending that boards block all public comment regarding staff members, including compliments. The Lebanon district, like many others, prohibits public comments that contain complaints about individual personnel in the district; people making complaints are asked to use the district's public complaint procedure, which does not come before the board in open session. The School Boards Association, in response to several court cases, is recommending that districts also bar positive public comments about staff members. The reason is that blocking complaints, but not compliments, during comment periods could be seen as a violation of the First Amendment.
This seems extreme — but, sadly, it's not out of the question that someone with a litigious bent could file suit against a district on those grounds, and prudent school trustees and administrators have an interest in protecting their districts from lawsuits. In the meantime, a nice handwritten note of thanks to hard-working district employees might have to suffice.
The School Boards Association also notes that nothing in state law requires board meetings to include public-comment periods. But it also seems extreme to eliminate those comment periods — and that really sends the wrong message to constituents. Instead, boards would be well-advised to set a time limit for these public comments, as onerous as those limits might seem to some members of the public, and to enforce those fairly. In addition, presiding officers need to do whatever they can to prevent commenters from making the same points over and over; what might be useful for board members to hear the first five or so times serves little purpose a dozen speakers down the line. Again, it's all about finding the right balance: A meeting that stretches on for hours can be just as damaging to public access as one in which the public cannot comment.
And let's say you're one of those people who really wants to speak without limits at a school board meeting, someone whose thoughts cannot possibly be condensed to fit inside a five-minute space. There's a remedy for that: Get yourself elected to the board. (mm)