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Public comments once again allowed on both agenda and non-agenda items at school board meetings

PMG PHOTO: MARK KIRCHMEIER - Scappoose School Board members attend a meeting in 2019.The Scappoose School Board has rolled back a controversial public comment policy it approved last December.

The policy approved last December took away community members' ability to make public comments at school board meetings, unless the comment was on a topic on the board's agenda.

Members of the public could request that a topic be added to the agenda, but had to do so at least 10 working days, or two weeks, ahead of the meeting. Members of the public could not make public comments on non-agenda items. Requests to add topics to the agenda would go to the superintendent, Tim Porter, or board chair Michelle Graham.

At its Oct. 12 meeting, the board voted unanimously to revert back to its old public comment policy, which was adopted in early 2018. That policy allows visitors at a meeting to speak on a topic not on the agenda.

Both policies allow for visitors to present petitions at board meetings — though no immediate action would be taken by the board in response — and prohibit comments about specific district employees, as personnel complaints go through a separate, more private process.

Under both policies, at the discretion of the board chair, members of the public who want to comment have to provide the board secretary with a completed comment card prior to the meeting.

The new policy allows the board to set time limits for public comments, which have typically been five minutes per person and 30 minutes total for public comments.

In December, the policy was approved by a 5-2 vote, with Lisa Maloney and Tim Brooks voting against.

At the Oct. 12 meeting, Vice Chair Will Kessi said that current circumstances, including virtual meetings, added to the frustration members of the public feel.

"There's a certain level of frustration when somebody comes in, they think they can talk or say something, and they can't," Kessi said.

Changing the public comment policy gives people one less thing to be frustrated by in an exhausting and uniquely challenging year, Kessi suggested.

"I think in the foreseeable future here that it's OK that we go back to... if somebody comes, they can say their piece, as long as it's respectful, and that they've tried to go through the other channels, if it's an issue with employees or something," Kessi said.

Board member Branda Jurasek said she believed the board's intent "was misunderstood."

"It was never to silence our parents. And I agree with Will, that I think the more chances we make to open communication, the better," Jurasek said.

Maloney, who voted against the policy approved last year, said she was happy to see more public input allowed again, but she was dismayed at the process of revisiting the policy.

"It took six formal requests to get this policy here — and by me — to try to get it before this board," Maloney said.

The new policy requires that members of the public make any request to add an agenda item at least five days in advance. The St. Helens School District similarly requires agenda addition a week in advance.

The St. Helens School District's public comment policy does allow public comments on non-agenda items, as do all the other Columbia County school districts, in Clatskanie, Vernonia and Rainier.

Since meetings went virtual, the board has also been requiring that members of the public submit comments in writing, but are then invited to repeat those comments verbally during the meeting. At the Oct. 26 board meeting, Maloney requested that the board end that practice. The board had never voted to require full comments in writing. The board agreed to suspend that practice, so members of the public just have to fill out a form with their name and general topic in advance of a meeting where they wish to make public comment.

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