Speakers during the public comment period at Lincoln Board of Education meetings will now be able to speak for three minutes instead of five under new rules – some good, some bad, some mandatory – passed by the board last week.
Some of these changes, such as requiring speakers to log in to speak from 30 minutes before the meeting starts to 15 minutes after it starts, are sensible, providing better organization and structure to the feedback process.
However, cutting speaker time by 40% is the wrong decision at the wrong time.
If it was to save time because of a large number of speakers, it’s a change that came almost a year too late.
Three board meetings in July and August 2021 drew more than 30 speakers, there to address mask requirements and, frankly, bring up issues of culture war – state-proposed sex-ed standards and Critical Race Theory – which did not directly apply to LPS. These marathon meetings, filled with repetitive public comments, lasted for hours.
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If, as John Neal, associate superintendent of government relations and general administration, told the Journal Star, shortening the speakers’ time was, in part, to allow for more speakers during the public comment period, reduction was a solution looking for a problem.
From January to the May 10 meeting, an average of eight speakers addressed the board. Assuming everyone took the full five minutes, the average comment period would have lasted 40 minutes. Under the three-minute rule, it would have dropped to 24 minutes.
If it is because council members do not want to hear ‘monologues’, the reduction in time reduces the ability of parents and other community members to participate in the council’s public decision-making process.
Public is the key word here. One-on-one meetings with board members, telephone conversations and email exchanges can and do allow individual member participation and can provide answers to questions that will not need to be raised at meetings. from the administration board. But making public statements, with ample time to do so, is a key part of participatory democracy, from congressional hearings, legislatures and city council to school board meetings.
The rest of the rule changes are reasonable and some should be consistent with changes to Nebraska’s open meeting law.
Among these, speakers are asked to provide their address, which makes sense for a number of reasons, including allowing the council to confirm that the speaker lives in the district.
But, as the controversies of 2021 have indicated, now is not the time for the council to cut speakers’ time and appear to limit the public’s role in decision-making.