Scappoose School Board's proposed public comment policy reduces openness, creates unneeded barriers
The Scappoose School District board of directors is well within the scope of its authority to set boundaries on public comment at school board meetings, a topic it intends to address at the upcoming Monday, Dec. 9, meeting.
On the table is a proposal to limit public comment at public school board meetings to agenda-item topics only. Any parent or community member who wishes to address a non-agenda item must give the school board a 10-day advance notice to have his/her subject of concern added to the agenda.
When we first learned of the school board's proposal, we wondered what problem the Scappoose School Board is attempting to solve and questioned whether there's been a preponderance of disruptive public comment that warrants a policy revision.
To the first point, Scappoose School Board Chair Michelle Graham indicated during discussion at the Nov. 12 board meeting that occasionally members of the public float unsuspected issues during public comment for which the board is unprepared to address. She specifically mentioned concerns about parking raised by a member of the public, but without any forewarning, the board was unable to have an immediate solution to the community member's concerns.
While we can appreciate the board's penchant for preparedness, any policy revision that places limitations on the public's ability to interact with its elected officials is misguided, at best. To board member Lisa Maloney's point (see "Scappoose School Board proposes changing public comment rules," A2), so far there have not been many instances of off-agenda topics raised at the school board meetings, so for the most part the board seems to be toiling over a solution to a non-existent problem.
For people on the inside of a government's operations, whether appointed staff members or elected officials — even members of the news media — it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking everyone is attuned to the established rules of discourse. In this case, board member Phil Lager argues it is easier for someone, at least 10 days
prior to a meeting, to email the full school board to request to have an item added to the agenda.
It's not. Often, someone who wishes to address a concern is reactive about how to address it and may have never considered directly interacting with the agency other than for one specific issue. That person then learns when the agency's elected representatives hold meetings and just shows up — perhaps finding out from a neighbor when
board meetings are held and leaving work early or schedul-
ing a babysitter to attend a meeting.
At that point, if the board's intention is to tell that person that he or she is out of order for failing to follow the established rules for communication with an elected school board member, the opportunity to provide true representation to the board members' constituency is lost. Just imagine being told to come back two weeks later, or longer, just to say your piece.
We assert that the board should be doing everything in its power to meet the public's schedule and be attentive to the public's agenda topics, not the other way around.
If the purpose of the proposed policy shift is so the board members can enjoy the favorable optics of appearing to never be caught off guard, then there is a fundamental error in the board members' thinking about how representative government should work. It's OK to not have all the answers. In fact, we doubt the board members even know all the questions to ask, which is why it's important to establish an environment of accessibility and open dialogue. Public members can still email, if that is their preferred mode of communication. The board's proposal doesn't add to accessibility and transparency, it subtracts from it. Additionally, it creates a filter should a member of the public desire to raise an issue that might be unflattering for a board member, giving an elected official an opportunity to craft clever messaging in response to anticipated criticism.
Sometimes elected officials should be hit with unexpected questions that make them uncomfortable.
Noting that the board has indicated that it has the option to be flexible in the administration of the proposed policy, it again raises the question of why it's needed.
As a parent mentioned at the Nov. 12 meeting, there have been prior administrative missteps when requested items for discussion never made it to the agenda. The opportunity for such errors is amplified if all public comment is required to be to be vetted through an administrative process. For now, public members can just show up and provide comment, which is limited to five minutes per person and subject to board
protocols for rules and order. The opportunity for administrative error is significantly
reduced in face-to-face interactions.
The reasons for the policy change are flimsy and the arguments raised against it are strong. The Scappoose School Board's proposed public comment policy change is unnecessary, is a further barrier to public transparency and open dialogue and should be flatly voted down.
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