The Cowley College Board of Trustees voted last week to further restrict public comments at its meetings, a move that ran counter to statements made by several trustee candidates at a public forum last fall.
The trustees on March 12 spoke with Donna Whiteman, Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) assistant executive director for legal services, regarding laws that govern public comments at official board meetings.
Following the conversation with Whiteman, the board voted to approve new wording for its communications policy.
The new language adds additional restrictions, based on Whiteman’s input. The only trustee who voted against the policy was Gary Wilson.
Changes include a reordering of the agenda by moving public comments immediately preceding “other business.”
As before, the board clerk must receive notice of a citizen who wishes to address the board at least 72 hours in advance of the meeting — but now citizens also must present any written testimony in advance, as well.
Since the November election, Parkerfield Mayor Mike Bergagnini — who ran an unsuccessful campaign for trustee and also applied for a vacancy later filled by Nancy Short Burger — has spoken critically at several board meetings regarding spending and other decisions.
Discussion with Whiteman
“Any public body (that) receives state or federal funds must comply with the (Kansas) Open Meetings Act (KOMA),” Whiteman said.
KOMA requires that all meetings of that public body’s governing board be open so taxpaying citizens may attend them and observe.
“There is no right (for citizens) to speak,” Whiteman said, although she allowed that “most boards allow three minutes to bring up any issues.”
“Any member of the public can contact a board member … before or after a meeting,” she added.
Whiteman compared the board of trustees to the board of a large corporation such as AT&T.
“(The board members) don’t get involved, generally, in the day-to-day operations,” she said.
“The board of trustees does not have to permit the time to speak at all?” asked trustee Jill Long. “It’s a privilege, not a right?”
“Right,” Whiteman said.
Public comments changes
In a news release, college spokesman Rama Peroo said citizens should attempt to resolve any concerns with appropriate college personnel prior to addressing the board of trustees.
“This process can be achieved by completing the ‘Tell it to the President’ form on the college’s public website” the release states.
“Concerns will then be routed to the appropriate personnel. Persons having matters to be brought before the board must submit those items in writing, including the full written testimony.”
“Presentations containing information or comments related to college personnel or students may be deferred for consideration in executive session,” according to the release.
“The chair reserves the right to stop the proceedings at any time and refer the speaker to follow up with the Office of the President.”
Wilson offered several objections to the proposed changes before casting a nay vote.
“I don’t like full written testimony — I think that would be hard to do,” he said. “I don’t like (that) the chair reserves the right to stop proceedings and (instruct an individual to) follow up with the Office of the President, because if it’s a board matter, it should be brought before the board.”
“We need to be able to shelter and protect our personnel and our students,” Long said.
“I understand that, but what if it’s something that the rest of the board thinks they should hear?” Wilson asked.
“This takes away our option to do that.”
“I think the board of trustees could speak up at that point,” Long said.
“Well, that’s not what’s laid out here under public comments,” Wilson said.
“There are decisions that the president cannot make — the board has to make them.”
He added that the way the policy was written restricted the board’s ability to perform its duties.
“Why should we not (hear citizens)? As long as they help pay the bills, if they have a legitimate question, I think they have the right to be heard,” Wilson concluded.
The continued use of the 72-hour notice requirement is in direct opposition to what several trustees said during a forum sponsored by Ark City Daily Bytes and the Arkansas City Area Chamber of Commerce, which was held Oct. 10, 2017, at the Senior Citizens Center.
During the forum, Bob Juden gave a statement regarding the time limit.
“You know, I don’t like that stipulation that much — the 72 hours,” he said. “I can see why it’s there, but I really don’t like it. … Since I’ve been the chair, there have been people that show up that wanted to talk, and I have kind of weighed that a little bit and let them talk, because I feel that it’s a public forum to an extent. So, I would have no problem with adjusting that.”
Juden did not respond to requests for comment for this story, nor did trustee Brian Sanderholm.
Trustee Ned Graham also addressed the time limit in his statement last October.
“I have often wondered about that 72-hour clock we have and I would not be adverse to an open question period with a strict time limit, not only on each individual, but in a section of the board meeting,” he said. “Because I don’t want to be there until midnight.”
But Wednesday, Graham said his position has changed “a little bit.”
“We’d like to know what’s coming, if possible,” he said. “We’d be better able to answer their questions if we know what they’ll be.”
Graham did concede that the policy “could be altered either way in the future, if everyone is in agreement to do so.”
Wilson also answered an inquiry regarding the policy change.
“I don’t want to stop people from being able to express their (opinions),” he said.
“It is true the college doesn’t have to let you speak. (But) I’m one that believes the public has the right.”
“Just because staff recommends something, doesn’t mean they need it,” Wilson added.
“A lot of time, if you can sit down with someone, you can take care of it.”