RSU 3 board members weigh in on public comment policy

By Ben Holbrook | Jul 17, 2013
Photo by: Ben Holbrook

Thorndike — Regional School Unit board members debated the structure of the district's public comment portion of their meetings Monday, July 8.

The board allows members of the public to speak for a maximum of 10 minutes at the beginning of meetings. During that time, the public can address any topic as long as they are respectful and do no single out specific employees of the district.

Board member Rachel Katz, who serves on the district's policy committee, said there was a great deal of discussion regarding the issue with concerns centered mainly on the possibility of comments being made that could land RSU 3 in legal troubles.

Katz said the primary issue was that someone could make a comment that would result in a defamation or libel lawsuit against the district. Superintendent Heather Perry then commented that if the board were to limit comments to specific agenda items it effectively creates a closed forum because people can only address that specific agenda item.

However, the district's public comment policy as it exists is an open forum, which allows a person to speak to any issue. Perry said that she has encountered instances where an open public comment period has resulted in legal issues.

Katz said the ideas in favor of a public comment policy were focused on creating opportunities for people to address the board and to make sure the meetings are open.

Following Katz's comments, board member Ryan Harnden asked how the public comment period is any different than when the chairperson recognizes a member of the public to speak during the meeting. He continued by stating that anytime a member of the board speaks, there's a risk that person could say something that could lead to a problem.

Perry noted that the general consensus of the policy committee was that the public comment portion of the meetings should be continued. Board chairman Phil Shibles then suggested the district's policy could be run by legal counsel for review, but Perry said she felt such a step would be unnecessary because the language in the policy was the same as that used by other districts.

As discussion continued, board member Jesse Hargrove referenced an email exchange that took place after the first public comment period was granted during a meeting earlier in the year. Hargrove said his concern was that there was “inequity” in how the 10 minute period was allocated among the speakers. As such, he suggested imposing a specific time limit — possibly two minutes — on speakers .

Setting a specific time limit was met with some concern, as board members questioned what would happen if 50 people showed up to the meeting. In that instance, board members pointed out the public comment period would last for 100 minutes.

Several members remarked that if 50 people were to show up to a meeting to speak to the board, then that probably meant there was an important issue that needed to be addressed.

Board member Christine LeGore suggested keeping the 10 minute time limit, but not allow speakers to talk for more than five minutes. Hargrove then responded that he felt the board was worried about a scenario that has yet to happen.

“I feel we're afraid of a problem that doesn't exist and probably won't exist,” Hargrove said.

Katz made a comment that she felt there is ample opportunity for people to contact the board outside of the public comment period. She said she felt that people who choose to speak during the public comment typically “have an axe to grind.”

At the conclusion of the discussion, board members suggested limiting the public comment portion of meetings to 10 minutes with speakers limited to two minutes each. A vote to accept the policy as a first reading was approved unanimously. The issue will go back to the policy committee for further discussion.

Republican Journal reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or at bholbrook@courierpublicationsllc.com.

 

 

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Ben Holbrook
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Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.

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