Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Open Mikes at Open Meetings?

February 12, 2014, 6:30 a.m.

Note: This blog essay was the source of the material in the following Iowa City Press-Citizen op ed column:

Public Comments About Public Comments Guidelines
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
February 15, 2014

The Iowa City Community School Board, commendably, endeavors to govern through enunciated policies. But sparks flew at Tuesday’s meeting during the public’s comments about public comments guidelines from the board.

Let’s put the issues in context.

• 1: “Open Meetings” don’t require “open mikes.” The law requires the school board to permit the public to attend its meetings (subject to specific exceptions). It does not require the board to permit the public to speak at those meetings.

• 2: Board members are volunteers. They have limited time to tend to the board business the law requires they address in open board meetings. Doing that business is the meetings’ primary purpose.

• 3: The board needs stakeholder input. There are many reasons why. (a) It is of the essence of a self-governing democracy that students, parents, teachers and others be heard. (b) Elected officials are responsible to constituents. (c) Board members’ decisions should be informed (though not dictated) by public comments — especially when an agenda item has limited prior opportunity for public input.

• 4: We need “public citizens.” Journalists can’t do it all. The public would be better off if all school boards, city councils, county boards and legislative committees had a few people following their work like our school board does. You don’t have to approve all of their tactics to know that the board and public would be worse off without our public citizens’ research and tenacity. In fact, think about picking your own agency to track.

• 5: Alternative opportunities. Input’s not limited to meetings. Consider talking to board members, sending them email or letters. The board might have a website to display public comments and interactive listening sessions. If board members’ responses reflect occasional modifications of prior positions, these alternatives can reduce (though not eliminate) the need and desire for discussion during board meetings.

• 6: The guidelines. There were two categories of public objection to the guidelines: some involved specific language, others a “slippery slope” concern of greater restrictions to come.

• a: School boards, like legislative committees and judges, have the inherent right, and responsibility, to maintain decorum in their workplace. Judges don’t need detailed regulations; an ignored warning risks contempt of court. School boards can’t fine or jail for disruptive behavior, but they can apply common sense — and even remove individuals if necessary.

• b: Guidelines’ language should be sufficiently precise to be clear without excessive detail. Even Iowa’s first speed limits were simply “reasonable and proper.”

• c: Allowing public comment at the beginning, rather than the end of meetings, is just plain thoughtful. As for time, the board could declare that time for comments, in total and for each speaker, will vary depending on the number of people who want to speak, how often that speaker has spoken, the public interest in a topic, and the amount of board business.

• d: Having speakers “sign in,” speak one at a time, and from the podium, can promote order and improve television coverage.

• e: Avoid vague standards regarding the content of speakers’ statements. Saying comments must involve “matters of public concern,” expressed with “respect and decorum” is both too narrow and overly broad. The same can be said for the guidelines’ specificity regarding punishments for violations. Certainly speakers should not be prohibited from criticizing the board and administration, or for using occasionally colorful language. Some content-based restrictions could even run afoul of the First Amendment.

This challenge can be met. In the end, it is a matter of balance and common sense — something for which Iowans are noted. ._______________ Nicholas Johnson who served on the Iowa City school board, 1998-2001, maintains and the blog

The original blog essay follows:

A Discussion About Discussion

As occasionally happens at Iowa City Community School District School Board meetings, all hell broke loose last night. Gregg Hennigan, "I.C. School Board Meeting Gets Heated; Proposed Public Comment Guidelines Draw Several Rebukes; No Vote Taken," The Gazette, Feb. 12, 2014, p. A11 ("Discussion got fiery last night as the Iowa City school board debated the first reading of new guidelines on public comment at meetings."); Holly Hines, "Speaking Policy Sparks ICCSB Debate," Iowas City Press-Citizen, Feb. 12, 2014, p. A1. [Photo: ICCSD School Board members in meeting. Not the current Board.]

In brief, the Board, which endeavors to govern through enunciated policies, struggled with how to handle public comments at its meetings and came up with proposed "guidelines" (set forth in full at the bottom of this blog essay). The guidelines got their "first reading" at last evening's meeting, whereupon the spontaneous public comments about the guidelines for public comments got a little raucous.

Here's how Hennigan described the Board's dilemma in balancing (1) the opportunity for public input at Board meetings, on the one hand, against (2) a felt need to maintain a tone of civility, a sense of order, and avoidance of a few dominating the discussion time:
[S]ome board members and school officials have indicated it's a couple of people in particular that they consider problems [naming them]. Both have run for but failed to get elected to school board, with [one] narrowly losing the last two elections. Both attend almost every board meeting and speak several times each on various agenda items. And both typically are harshly critical of board or administrative decisions and sometimes get personal with their comments. At a December meeting . . . one person submitted speaking forms for six items, and another, 11."
As dramatic as last evening's Board meeting apparently was, and as juicy as the news coverage it can provide may be, there are serious issues here that require a little context and reflection. This is a brief attempt. [Photo: public attending ICCSD Board hearing; not last evening.]

(1) "Open Meetings" don't require "Open Mikes." The law requires the school board permit the public to attend its meetings (subject to specific exceptions). It does not require that the board permit members of the public to speak at those meetings.

(2) The primary purpose of board meetings is board business. Because the board has work that it must do, as a board (both as a matter of law, and of good governance), and because board members are volunteers who have limited time to give to board business, the primary function of board meetings is to provide an opportunity for board members to be able to do board business.

(3) The board needs public input. There are many reasons why it is desirable for board members to hear from, and interact with, the school district’s stakeholders – students, parents, teachers, other employees, officials from other public bodies, and taxpayers. (a) It is of the essence of a self-governing democracy. (b) Elected officials have a responsibility to their constituents. (c) Board members’ positions and decisions should be informed (though not dictated) by public opinion. (d) Politically, listening to one’s constituents may be a necessary prerequisite to reelection. These considerations are especially weighty when the public comments relate to board agenda items for which there has been limited, or no, prior opportunity for significant public comment.

In fact, I believe we would all be better off if every school board, zoning board, city council, county board of supervisors, legislative committee, and other public body and agency had two people following their work like the two Hennigan mentions are following the ICCSD school board. Based on what I know, each takes this self-imposed duty seriously, devotes time, does research, speaks out, follows up with tenacity, and is often pursuing matters that almost anyone would agree need a little more attention. I would encourage anyone with the slightest interest in doing so to pick their own public body and agency and perform this role of "public citizen."

Obviously, this does not mean that I agree with every subject these two have prioritized and followed, or with all of the tactics they have apparently believed were constructive and effective in pursuing their view of "the public interest." But I do believe we would all be the worse off if the school board were to somehow remove them from the process entirely.

(4) Alternative opportunities for input. Of course, this interaction can take a variety of forms in addition to public comments at board meetings: personal conversations, email or letters, a Web page open to public comments, listening-interactive sessions held at convenient locations (such as schools around the district) solely for the purpose of dialogue with members of the public. Increasing such alternative opportunities for public input -- especially if board members' responses reflect their impact on changes in board members' positions -- can reduce both the need and desire, for board members and public alike, of lengthy public discussion during board meetings.

(5) The guidelines' standards. Some of the heat last evening was a response to the specific language in the guidelines (set forth below, in full). (Although some was also driven by a "slippery slope" concern that any restriction on public speech during board meetings might lead to shutting out the public entirely.)

(a) School boards, like legislative committees, executive branch agencies, and judges in their courtrooms, have the responsibility, as well as the right, to maintain decorum with regard to the public speech and behavior in their places of work (with some exceptions). A judge need not set forth detailed regulations regarding the specifics of the behavior that he or she will treat as deserving of punishment for "contempt." School boards should be similarly able to control public comments during their board meetings.

(b) It is probably desirable for the school board to announce in advance some guidelines. But it should not be necessary for them to specify in advance a detailed description of each and every act that it will, and will not, permit. Language should be sufficiently precise as to be clear, and yet not so detailed as to turn a matter of informal common sense into something more resembling the intricacies of the Internal Revenue Code. Recall that even Iowa's early highway speed limits were no more specific than "reasonable and proper."

(c) For example, allowing public comment at the beginning, rather than at the end, of meetings is simply thoughtful. That is a specific that could be stated as policy. On the other hand, the board might make clear that the amount of time devoted to comments, both in total and for each speaker, will reasonably vary from one meeting to another, depending upon the number of people who wish to speak, the number of times an individual has spoken, the intensity of public interest in a topic, and the amount of board business on the meeting agenda.

(d) It probably makes sense to have people “sign in” with name, address, phone, and email address, so as to have a record for the board minutes. And requiring speakers to speak one at a time, and from the podium, not only promotes order, and the possibility of being heard, but also better television coverage of the meetings.

(e) It is best to avoid vague standards regarding the content of attendees' speech -– if for no other reason than that the board is “Congress” for purposes of the First Amendment, and content-based restrictions on speech might very well be a constitutional violation. Certainly speakers should not be punished for criticism of the board or administration, or for using the occasionally colorful language that has been a part of America's ongoing political conversation for hundreds of years.

Requiring that comments must involve “matters of public concern” expressed with “respect and decorum” are both too narrow and overly broad. (They are too narrow because they omit many other considerations; they are too broad because they are vague.) Terms like this lie at the side of the road to civil discourse like IEDs in Afghanistan -– providing just one more subject about which arguments can flare. ("You're out of order. That's not 'a matter of public conern.'" "Oh yes it is." "No, it's not.") The same can be said for specifying the sanctions to be applied when “the rules” are violated.

In sum, it is probably better for a school board to exercise the discretion of a judge in getting on with the business at hand, and maintaining decorum, in his or her courtroom -– where the public also has a right to be present, but does not have a right to speak.

Full Text of Proposed Guidelines

ICCSD Public Comment Guidelines

The Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors is committed to maintaining an environment of dignity and respect in all district schools and buildings and at all District activities, events, and meetings. The Board of Directors has promulgated policies of the ICCSD, which mandate a safe and civil atmosphere at district events (Board Policy Code No. 104). Specifically, the Board is committed to a policy of Equal Educational Opportunity, and within this policy the right of all “students and staff to be treated with respect and to be protected from intimidation, discrimination, physical harm and harassment” (Code No. 102).

Beyond the Policies of the Board of Directors, the Superintendent and administration are also committed to maintaining environments free of harassment and discrimination. Superintendent Directive Positive Stakeholder Relations mandates that the Superintendent shall “ensure that conditions, procedures, or decisions are safe, dignified, and that provide appropriate confidentiality and privacy,” and that stakeholder interactions “[p]rohibit the use of abusive language and other behavior generally considered to be lacking in civility and respect for others” (POSITIVE STAKEHOLDER RELATIONS, Level 3a(5)). In addition, The Superintendent is charged with ensuring “conditions that are dignified and consistent with the mission of the public school system” for all staff (STAFF RELATIONS, Level 2b).

To promote a positive educational environment at Board Meetings and to ensure the respect and dignity due every stakeholder under District policy, the following guidelines are in place to guide public comment during ICCSD Board of Director meetings:

Once recognized to speak, speakers are limited to three (3) minutes of public comment

Speakers must submit a request form, which is available at the Board Meeting, to the recording secretary in order to be recognized to speak by the Board President

Comments should be related to matters of public concern

Speakers addressing the Board will conduct himself/herself with respect and decorum.

Comments or expressions that are abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd shall be prohibited

Comments will only be made from the podium microphone after the community member is recognized by the Board President. Comments made from the audience shall be considered out of order and subject to sanction under this policy

Violations of this policy will result in the Board of Directors, through the Board President, sanctioning the member of the school community that violates these guidelines. Generally, sanctions will be imposed, in a progressive manner, as follows:

A verbal warning by the Board President that the policy has been violated

A written notification that the policy continues to be violated

A suspension from speaking at Board of Directors Meetings

These sanctions do not prohibit the Board President from moving directly to a suspension of speaking privileges for behaviors that are considered egregious. Members of the community that are disruptive to the meeting or refuse to abide by the guidelines may be immediately asked to leave the Board Meeting (or other District meetings where public comment is available). This policy does not prohibit the Board or Administration from enforcing other District Policies in concert with this policy.
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Sunday, February 02, 2014

Pete Seeger and An Antidote to Apathy

February 2, 2014, 1:10 p.m.
"We Shall Overcome"

Why bother? What's the point? What difference can I possibly make?

Ever felt that way? Many do.

Yet others keep at it, whatever the odds, staring down defeat. What sustains them? What keeps them going?

One of those people was Pete Seeger. His example, commitment, and endurance was an inspiration to me as a young man -- and to millions of others during the past sixty-plus years. He was an icon, larger than life, and lots more fun. I never dreamed in those days that I would someday be sharing a stage with him at rallies, enjoying a private, quiet dinner and evening's conversation with Pete, and his wife, Toshi, in their Beacon, New York, home overlooking the Hudson River he was fighting for, or that he would be providing support for the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, for which I was the chair. [Photo credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images; multiple sources.]

What a life he led! Past tense because, as all but cave dwellers are by now aware, he died last Monday, January 27, at the age of 94. Jon Parelesjan, "Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94," New York Times, Jan. 29, 2014, p. A20. His wife, Toshi, predeceased him last year, Elisabeth Blair, "Toshi Seeger, Wife Of Folk Singer Pete Seeger, Dies At 91," New York Times, July 11, 2013 -- just shy of their 70th anniversary.

His death marks the end of an era, an era of folk songs and banjo, his leading audiences of thousands in song, energizing, organizing and raising our hopes that change was possible.

Memories of Pete Seeger flooded back again a couple of days ago as I read an email from a young man I know. It was going to require a response, and it got me to thinking about why it is that some are able to keep going for 94 years, while others give up after years and years of frustration.

First, here are some excerpts from what that young man wrote me:
Over the years I've written numerous letters to the editor, attended several public meetings, joined local non-profit groups and gone to their meetings, written directly to government officials (both email and postal letters), spoken with sheriffs and police chiefs, tried to change things at work by talking with management and working with the union, written gobs of blog entries, forum posts and comments on online newspaper articles -- on and on -- and essentially none of it has mattered. All my effort has amounted to practically nothing.

After one disaster in which people were killed and injured, I got the impression that no one wanted to know the truth. Perhaps there were enough people who might potentially get burned that they all just got together and buried it. When I try to bring things like this to the attention of local reporters they either never respond to my calls and emails, or don't seem to care. There is just a collective shrug. Crickets chirping.

I'm pretty much done fighting. I really don't see the point.

That's not to say there haven't been some advances in society over the last 50-100 years. Of course there have been, most of them involving civil rights. But it doesn't do anyone much good to be able to vote, for example, if powerful special interests are determining the candidates and the ship is headed for the iceberg.

Regardless of whether one thinks we are headed for nirvana or total annihilation, it really seems to me that the speed and the course are beyond the control of most individuals and groups. Any of us can rant and rave about the politics, WalMart, overpopulation, over-development, abortion, stem cells, guns, church/state issues, the Middle East, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, public education, and taxes, and it just does not matter. We're almost always either preaching to the choir and/or pissing off a large number of people (some of whom may be mentally unstable). It's exceedingly unlikely that one of the Waltons, or a bishop protecting pedophile priests, or a KKK member, or a cement head conservative would read something -- written by anyone really, but especially little ol' me -- and say to themselves, "You know, this guy makes a lot of sense! I realize now that I've been wrong my entire life. Gosh darn it, I'm gonna turn over a new leaf and do the right thing!"

The deck is stacked. Just one example from emails I received today -- efforts to stop the XL pipeline. I think we all know how that's gonna go. I doesn't matter how many people are against it -- there's too much money at stake. Obama will approve it.

Even in years past, for every JFK, Martin Luther King, or Gandhi -- every person who ever made a difference -- there were scores of others who worked, sacrificed, and suffered in vain. Not to mention that all of the above were eventually assassinated.

There are good reasons for millions of Americans to share that sense of hopelessness. And frankly, I don't know what the best response would be to those who feel that way. I'm sure there are many who could do a better job than I in coming up with a response. In any event, here was my feeble effort:
There are many potential responses to what you wrote.

Sadly, yours may be the majority view. Look at the voting turnout in Iowa City – the world’s third-selected “City of Literature,” a city one with one of the nation’s highest percentages of college graduates, one seen as so progressive as to be characterized as “The People's Republic of Johnson County” by those in Western Iowa. We often get turnouts of 5% to 10% of the eligible voters for city council, school board, and bond elections. Apathy rules.

There is certainly a lot of evidence to support your position. How many “public interest” organizations have shut down because their initial mission was accomplished?

(1) Strategy and Tactics. Those engaged in promoting change would do well to give more thought to strategies and tactics. When Dick Remington and I were co-directors of the Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy, we did a benefit-cost/triage analysis of where we might best put our time and money. We decided, in turn, to focus on (a) control of tobacco use, as it was the number one cause of death, (b) emphasize preventing pre-teens from taking up smoking (as more cost-effective than trying to get nicotine addicts off their drug), and (c) raising the price of cigarettes as the most effective way of discouraging children from taking up smoking. What are the causes that both hold the greatest potential for human betterment, and chance of accomplishment through the efforts of individual citizens? Success, a sense of accomplishment, what community organizers call "the fixed fight," are among the best antidotes for discouragement.

Some causes really are hopeless -– at least at a given time. “Pick your battles,” as my wife advises me. LBJ asked his presidential appointees to provide him with proposals for policies that would best serve the national interest. He said we should not make judgments about what is, and is not, possible -– he would make those judgments. As a congressman’s daughter in law, returning with the family from the south after Christmas, once put it, “Nick, some of those people are just going to have to die” -– not meaning that they should be killed, but that it is seemingly impossible to reason with them. As Thomas Paine explained a couple centuries earlier, “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason . . . is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” (From Thomas Paine, The American Crisis.)

(2) Words Matter. But Thomas Paine said something else that I often think of, that reflects his understanding of both what a long and hard road it is to bring about change, but also how important incremental efforts can be: “The words pile up and then men do things. But first the words.” (I can’t find the source of that right now.) His pamphlet, Common Sense,” played a major role in the American Revolution. As John Adams is credited with having said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

(3) Of Butterflies and Politics. Do you know about what’s called “the butterfly effect” (a butterfly flapping its wings in China might potentially contribute to the formation of a hurricane in North America weeks later)? Everything you say, every email you write, every letter to the editor you get published, every comment you make to the host of a call-in radio program, is at least the political equivalent of those butterfly wings flapping. Your words do have some effect -- even if so slight as to be immeasurable. It will certainly rarely be enough, by itself, to produce action or change.

Each leaf that fluttered to the bottom of the pool millions of years ago seemed insignificant, but it ultimately became part of a billion barrels of oil. Your support of ZPG (Zero Population Growth), and writing about global population, is an example; you have been a part of a growing global awareness that has, in fact, slowed population growth in many parts of the world.

Think tanks and various task forces and commissions come out with reports full of proposals to make things better. When they do, some people complain, “Oh, just another report to go on the shelf and gather dust.” My thought is, yes, more reports do come along every decade or so on this subject. But ultimately the time is right, a public official's staff person reads through all those old reports, gets the ear of his or her employer, and action follows.

Change is slow in coming. Very slow. As Paine began Common Sense, “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

Think of how long it took to convince Americans that slavery was not cool, or that perhaps it was worth taking the risk of letting women vote, or that it was not folly to create a national park system, or Social Security payments.

(4) A Swinging Pendulum Moves the Clock Forward. The pendulum swings. It’s not always “two steps forward and one step back.” Sometimes it’s “one step forward and two steps back.” Sometimes it’s no steps forward. But even a sailboat can sail into the wind by tacking; the reformer’s job is to figure out the equivalent of tacking when sailing into overwhelming opposition. Even the very best professional baseball players don't get a hit, let alone a home run, every time at bat. When I was doing door-to-door selling I read that it's normal to be turned down at least ten times for every sale. Politics, and reform of public policy is like that. A realistic sense of what's possible reduces frustration.

(5) The Personal Return from Making an Effort. Finally, there is the impact on the person engaged in trying to bring about change. There is actually some psychological data on this, I think.

Being engaged in the passions of one’s time is good for your physical, mental and emotional health. It often involves working with others you would not otherwise have come to know. It energizes you, gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Discouragement? Sure. But as President Kennedy said at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Want a little advice? Take a measured, realistic view of what anyone can accomplish, the causes that are hopeless, those that are going to take decades and yet have a chance. Don’t take on too much. Don’t stress yourself out with lack of sleep and perpetual frustration. Maintain a sense of humor about it all. Find additional activities that are predominantly pleasant. But you’ll continue to benefit, even personally, not to mention for others, by not giving up entirely on trying to improve the status quo -– Latin for “the mess we’re in now.” Help clean it up. It's worth it.

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