Containing public comment

Cd’A school board limits participation at meetings

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COEUR d'ALENE - There are some new ground rules for speaking at Coeur d'Alene School District board meetings, and some people aren't happy about it.

The trustees are no longer accepting public comments that are not related to an item on the meeting's agenda. They are limiting each person to one opportunity per meeting to address the board, and will continue to enforce a 3-minute time limit at the microphone.

They will also prohibit audio or tape recordings of the meetings by anyone other than working members of the media.

"I have mixed feelings about the changes. I feel like I want to be open, have an ear to the ground about what's going on out there, and what people's concerns are," Superintendent Hazel Bauman said.

The board decided to make the changes, Bauman said, because "the meetings have been hijacked for specific purposes."

"Our sense was that if we didn't rein it in a little bit, because it's televised and it provides a political soapbox, if you will, at every single meeting we were going to have people standing up and saying the same thing," Bauman said.

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For the past year, several patrons have regularly appeared before the board to comment on the district's International Baccalaureate programs, and the manner in which the district carries out its policies and procedures.

Duncan Koler, a parent who has been critical of the district's decision to continue offering the IB's advanced learning high school program, and an elementary school IB program, said the move goes against the democratic process.

"This is part of a continuing effort by this board to limit public input, and to limit the spreading of public input because remember, these meetings are videotaped and broadcast," Koler said. "Limiting public input in this fashion is unprecedented."

Bauman said if those who comment regularly were presenting new information to the board, they would be more likely to listen to it.

"I don't know that we're going to be able to completely shut it off, but by saying that it must be tied to an agenda item, we can control it a little bit better," Bauman said.

It's a way to streamline the meetings, she said, so the board is able to receive public input on things the board is considering taking action on, rather than hearing a random dialogue each month.

"We're not closing off comment. We want people to comment on our website. We want them to make appointments with me, or the appropriate directors," Bauman said.

Idaho's Open Meeting Law does not require agencies to take any testimony or public comment during meetings, although most entities do allow some time for it.

"If there was a sense that we were stifling public input as to the school district, I would recommend we change it again, because that's not the intent at all," Bauman said. "I think we have maybe been, in some cases, overly accommodating for a very, very small minority of people."

Regarding prohibiting audio and video at meetings, Bauman said that rule does not pertain to working members of the media.

There are several members of the public that regularly use their own equipment to record the meetings.

"Quite frankly, it's intimidating," Bauman said. "It's different if it's neutral, or you're looking for information, but somebody who's really upset with me, and they stick a microphone ... as accomplished and as comfortable as I am at public speaking, I start to stammer and stutter."

It makes it difficult for the board to conduct the business at hand, she said.

If all the meetings were not recorded and televised on Time Warner Channel 19, with recordings available for anyone to review by request, Bauman said the district might be more willing to allow personal recording devices. Audio recordings of the meetings are posted on the district's website.

Koler believes those district-prepared recordings are at the heart of the board's decision to limit public input.

"I have the distinct feeling that this district does not want anything to go to the public that goes against their agenda," Koler said.

The 2009 Open Meeting Law Manual prepared by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office states: "A public agency may adopt reasonable rules and regulations to ensure the orderly conduct of a public meeting and to ensure orderly behavior on the part of those persons attending the meeting."

The manual points to a 1965 California legal case in which the court invalidated a city council rule prohibiting the use of any tape recorders at city council meetings, after a reporter sought an injunction.

"A similar holding might be reached if a governing body prohibits the use of cameras by news and television people, if their presence is not in fact disruptive of the conduct of the meeting," states the manual.

The Idaho AG's guide does not specifically address restricting the public, other than media members, from recording meetings.

Bauman said they consulted their attorney before putting these rules in place.

"They are meetings held in public, not public meetings," Bauman said. "I don't want to scream that out loud, because I actually want the public to interact with us."

The new rules are being reviewed for addition to the district's existing policies regarding board meetings, and could go before the board again as early as Dec. 6.

The Idaho Attorney General's "Open Meeting Law Manual" can be viewed here: http://www2.state.id.us/ag/manuals/openmeeting.pdf

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