Bad behavior might backfire
Published 5:35 pm Tuesday, September 7, 2021
Editor, The Smithfield Times:
When it comes to open government issues in the news nationwide, August was all about the school board meetings. To a lesser extent, city councils and county boards of supervisors meetings had difficulties, but it was the school boards that really struggled with large crowds and unruly speakers there to sound off on Critical Race Theory, mask mandates and policies on transgender students.
Not all public comment periods devolved into chaos, but some did, and several board chairs resorted to ending meetings prematurely or having individuals who would not adhere to meeting rules escorted out of the room.
The Associated Press reported that nationwide school board members are stepping down from their positions, unable to stomach the vitriol and personal attacks often lobbed by speakers.
This is a new phenomenon, at least the degree to which it is happening. There have been one-offs here and there over the years, and there have always been concerns over restrictive public comment period rules. But the extent and ubiquity of the decorum issues we saw in August are definitely different.
Boards are allowed to craft time, place and manner restrictions on public comment periods — which aren’t even required at regular meetings — so long as they are applied neutrally, without regard to content, and so long as they are narrowly drawn and leave other avenues for comments to be conveyed.
The unfortunate by-product of these rowdy meetings, where speakers regularly exceed their allotted time, shout over and boo other speakers or flash vulgar gestures, is that public comment period rules will likely become more restrictive, not less. It’s a spiraling race to the bottom.
Anyone who follows the Virginia Coalition for Open Government knows that we are huge proponents of public comment periods that give citizens ample time to speak on a wide variety of topics that impact them. But we are also sympathetic to the plight these boards are facing and the growing chasm between them and the citizens they serve.
VCOG urges speakers to be civil and boards to be patient. There has to be a better way than what we’ve been seeing lately.
Virginia Coalition for Open Government