The move was made in anticipation of greater public participation thanks to people's option to comment via Zoom rather than having to be present at the meeting in person.
The board originally decided to review its procedures for public participation as part of a discussion over the future of commenting via Zoom. When meetings went fully remote during the early days of the pandemic, the district added the option for the public to participate virtually. That option was removed last spring, prompting pushback from board member Shounak Dharap and ultimately leading the board to form an ad hoc committee to review participation guidelines.
The board voted in August to permanently enshrine Zoom commenting but delayed a vote on two other recommendations from the ad hoc committee: reducing the maximum time per comment to two minutes and limiting the public comment on any given agenda item to a total of 30 minutes.
At this week's meeting, the board approved the two-minute maximum, but once again held off on making any decisions about the 30-minute cap per item.
Under the new system, if there are 10-15 people who want to speak on an item, the board can choose to reduce the time down to one and a half minutes per speaker. When more than 15 people show up to speak, one minute can be allotted.
Previously, speakers typically got three minutes each. That could be reduced down to two minutes when there were 10-15 speakers, one and a half minutes when there were 16-20 speakers and one minute when there were more than 20 speakers.
Board President Ken Dauber, who served on the ad hoc committee with Dharap, said that the recommendation to limit the time for public comment came in response to the fact that Zoom commenting expands opportunities for the public to speak during meetings.
"This was our thought about how to balance the increased access with the best use of the board's time in terms of both taking public comment and having the opportunity to make good decisions," Dauber said.
He said that the goal is to have public participation, while also giving the board the time to engage in full discussions and avoid having meetings run late into the night.
Not all board members agreed that reducing public comment time was best. DiBrienza noted that the district already had a system in place for reducing the commenting time when lots of people show up to address the board.
"I haven't heard any compelling reason why we would change what our current practice has been, (which) has had our meetings ending pretty early," DiBrienza said. "And if there are a lot of speakers, we're down to one minute each."
Ladomirak similarly said she didn't see the need to change when the board already reduces commenting time based on the number of speakers.
Todd Collins, on the other hand, said that while there isn't anything magic about two minutes specifically, the issue is about setting conditions for future boards who could find themselves in different circumstances. He noted that just a few years ago, board meetings frequently ran late into the night with many public commenters. Collins supported the reduction to two minutes.
The three commenters who addressed the board about public participation procedures all opposed the change. Parent Steven Davis said that three minutes is already a tough constraint and that many people who address the board haven't done so before and are speaking about complicated issues. He added that reducing the time for each speaker favors those who are able to speak English well.
"The voices of the community matter for the board and district to hear, but also, it is important for them to be heard by other members of the public. People learn they are not alone," Davis said.
Teachers union president Teri Baldwin and classified staff union president Meb Steiner also opposed the change.
Capping time per agenda item
When it came to reducing the overall time for each agenda item to 30 minutes, the issue was complicated by the fact that the board had actually already voted to make the change back in 2017, but that vote was never put into practice.
Dauber's and Dharap's ad hoc committee recommended having a 30-minute limit, and the background information on Tuesday's agenda said that no action was needed to institute this cap because the vote was already made in 2017.
However, DiBrienza and Ladomirak raised concerns about instituting something that hadn't been used for five years. Ladomirak noted that even during the height of the debates over COVID-19 school closures and reopening, the board never invoked the 30-minute limit.
"This just kind of feels like a bait and switch to me," Ladomirak said. "I'm not comfortable that this is what we're doing right now to the community."
She said that these types of decisions can be why the community starts to mistrust government bodies, while also noting that she doesn't believe there are any nefarious reasons behind it.
Rather than make a decision on Tuesday night, the board's agenda-setting committee will review the issue and bring it back to a future meeting, Dauber said.
For his part, Dharap said that he believes a 30-minute limit is actually a way to further public participation. When too much time is spent on early agenda items, it limits time for those who want to speak on issues later in the meeting, Dharap said.
The board's bylaws call for meetings to be adjourned by 10:30 p.m., with only one extension allowed if two-thirds of the board approves it.
Dharap added that he wants it to be a requirement that comment is capped at 30 minutes, rather than something that the board can do at its discretion.
"That to me is rife with concerns about First Amendment chilling. Why is the board deciding on this particular item with this particular set of commenters to limit the time? That is rife with problems," Dharap said. "I think we need a strong process, a very clear set of guidelines that are consistently applied to every meeting."
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