Monday Morning Thoughts: Sudden Change, Truncated Public Process for DJUSD – School Board Cuts Off Public Comment After 20 Minutes

By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – Two weeks prior to students at DJUSD going back to a two-day per week in-class schedule as part of a hybrid model, the school board decided to hold a special meeting on Sunday evening to discuss going to a five-day per week in-person model instead.

There are good reasons to do this of course, and the district was under pressure from some parent groups to be more aggressive in their return to campus—but the process here leaves a lot to be desired.

According to the agenda: “A special meeting shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body concerning any item that has been described in the notice for the meeting before or during consideration of that item.”

The item was “legally posted” on March 27, which is in compliance with Brown Act regulations on special meetings. The public comment phone line opened at noon on March 28—the day of the meeting.

During the meeting, Board President Joe DiNunzio announced that they had received 65 public comments. If they listened to it all, it would take about two hours.

However, the board had previously passed a policy to limit public comment to 20 minutes—which is something they legally can do under the Brown Act.

Joe DiNunzio asked if there was any objection to keeping that policy—there was none. They then played the first 20 minutes of public comment and DiNunzio encouraged his colleagues to listen to the remainder at another point in time—after they had already made their decision.

Think about that—a momentous decision, made at the last minute, the board had 65 comments from the public on an issue that is hugely controversial and important, and they decided to truncate that process.

All told, the board meeting went about two to two and a half hours. They easily could have listened to the full comments and still been out by 10:30.

They have the legal right to do this, but here they are facing a recall because their policy for re-opening did not go nearly far enough—at least for some groups of parents. Apparently on Friday they consulted with DTA.

But this was announced on Saturday at the end of spring break. The agenda was posted on Saturday. On Sunday they took 65 public comments suggesting that the public, even with this tremendously truncated time period, was engaged on this issue, and they completely short-circuited any sort of public discussion.

The city council has been criticized by many in the community for having bad public policy. And yet, when they have faced similar situations, the city council has listened to the full array of public comments. On several of the big issues—like DISC and University Commons,the city council decided based on the volume of public comment to listen to the public comments at one meeting and then deliberate at the next meeting to make a decision. That allowed everyone’s voice to be heard.

The school board did need to make the decision relatively quickly, but they actually had time to listen to the public comment and could still have left at a reasonable hour. Or they could have listened to public comment and met again on Monday to make a decision.

Right now this looks like they got pressure from parent groups, they posted a revised plan over the weekend, again during spring break, and made up their minds that they were going to ram these changes through.

How much thought has been given to this? It’s not clear. The district apparently did consult with the teachers on Friday. But the community only found out about this over the weekend. It seems like you want to get full community buy-in, since they short-circuited their normal engagement.

The irony here is that I am probably in favor of a five-day model—if they can do it safely. I do worry that, while COVID cases are dropping right now, in parts of the country there has been a new surge. Each time the communities have reopened, people have dropped their guard and COVID has returned even worse than before. The third wave frankly dwarfed the first two.

The vaccination penetration in our community is reasonably good. Over one-third of the public in Davis has received at least their first dose. And that will help to mitigate a surge, but we may once again be rushing in.

Nevertheless, I probably support the five-day model, but what I don’t support is this blatant short-circuiting of a reasonable public process. People complain about the city—imagine if the city council put a highly controversial item on for a special meeting one day before and cut off public comment after 20 minutes?

Mace 391 is probably the closest example—sudden change to a policy and put on consent, but even that did not have public comment cut off, and the city council realized their mistake pretty quickly.  And Mace 391 was never approved, partly as a result.

The district will likely get away with it because they acceded to the demands of the vocal parents. But the public process here needs to be addressed somehow.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Glick

    This isn’t the first time. When they appointed a replacement for Trustee Pickett they didn’t hear any public comment before proceeding to board deliberations. That one turned out badly.

    As representatives of the public they have an obligation to hear from the public.

  2. Keith Y Echols

    Eh, what would hearing the remaining comments have achieved?  It sounds like they had already made their decision.  Listening to the remaining comments would have just been pretense.

    Sometimes decisions need to be made quickly.  That’s one of the reasons there’s an executive branch in the United States Government and not every single decision is made by Congress deliberating through committees.  Now those decisions should be under special circumstances…..usually under time constraints.

    The school board had to make a quick decision on something that would require major re-planning over the next two weeks.  We elect leaders to lead…not to simply tally up the direct votes on a subject matter.  John Q Public does not need to be involved in every single granular detail of every decision in the City of Davis (I’m looking at you Measure J).

    Now for my opinion….all this strong passionate debate (in some cases verbal fighting?) over schools reopening as a hybrid model or fully or whatever….is completely silly because we’re talking about a grand whopping total of 2 freakin months.  The way this is being passionately discussed and debated you’d think we were planning the future of the children and their instruction from now until they graduate.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        Well since you say so…it must be.  I guess that’s your executive action on your blog?  lol….

        Your comment has no relevance to mine.  It’s too bad you can’t counter it with something rational.  You’re emotional response and reaction is just indignation that once again you realize that you and everyone else doesn’t have direct control of political decision making.  Congratulations…you’re one of us Plebeians!

        We have a REPRESENTATIVE Democracy.  We vote in people to make the best decisions for us.  That doesn’t mean they take into account everyone’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs for every decision they make.  They do what they think is best for their constituents.  And if their constituents don’t like it…they vote them out.

        1. David Greenwald

          It’s the same point I made last week with respect to Measure J – democracy is not an outcome based activity, just the opposite, you have to accept losing for democracy to work.  So the question of what is the point – the point is to give the public some buy-in and a stake in the process.  The point is that an elected representative should listen to their constituents.  The point is that two hours is not a lot of time to take to make sure everyone has been heard.  In the end, you may and probably do end up with the same outcome, but that’s okay, everyone has been heard.

        2. David Greenwald

          On representational democracy… (A) we don’t have a pure representational democracy first of all.  It’s a hybrid, especially in California.  (B) The key phrase in representational democracy is represent…  You can’t represent if you don’t know how your constituents feel.  The public process here short-circuited that.

        3. Keith Y Echols

          You missed the point about EXECUTIVE decision.  Not every decision can be or should be deliberated.  Again, should the board have just gone through the motions for pretense?

          Yes representatives should listen to constituents.  But to what degree?  Do you think the board didn’t hear any of the community’s comments?  Are you metering their interaction with the public?  Do you want them to produce a log on every interaction  they’ve had with the public over  a subject over the past…I dunno… 2 months?  They met the minimum requirement for formal public hearing of comments; so it’s not like you can admonish them for breaking the rules.   I’d say the board is highly sensitive to what the public wants.  But you seem to want to rake them over the coals over some formality about public comments.  Ultimately if the constituents aren’t happy with the results then they vote them out.  

          There’s reason why direct democracy isn’t implemented in any major system for government.  It’s because the Plebs (you, me and most everyone else) can’t be trusted to make day to day and long term decisions….we’ve got day to day lives to live and our own personal self interests.)  I think you place far too much importance (as does all of Davis) on the decision making capabilities of the unwashed masses (of which I am definitely one of the most unwashed).

          1. David Greenwald

            There is also a reason why the biggest part of elected representatives is constituent services – there is someone responsible in every congressional and legislative office for reading all correspondence and responding. Again, when you ask to “what degree” – to the degree that they people have been allowed to have their say at a public meeting. 20 minutes for public comment? Really? In Davis? You think that plays well?

        4. Alan Miller

          They do what they think is best for their constituents.

          Rather, they do what is best for their contributors/future-supporters.  See:  ladder truck.

        5. Keith Y Echols

          They met their requirement.  You may like to say that it’s the process that counts.  But reality says that it’s a results world.  If the board’s decision goes over well… (even with the overly jumped sense of self importance in Davis) no one will care enough about some comments.  If it goes well….everyone will say…yay! kids back to school!  and the school board will continue on doing whatever it is they do.  And if it doesn’t go well….they’ll get voted out.   But it’ll be because of the results of the decision.

    1. Tia Will

      Eh, what would hearing the remaining comments have achieved?  It sounds like they had already made their decision.  Listening to the remaining comments would have just been pretense.”

      I believe that what might have been achieved is hearing a convincing argument. One reason I have continued writing for the Vanguard over a period of > 10 years was a single comment by someone who had started out completely opposed to my opinion on an issue. What she said was:

      “Your article changed my mind.”

  3. Alan Miller

    Joe DiNunzio asked if there was any objection to keeping that policy—there was none.

    None.  I don’t normally vote in school board elections, but I’ll be voting in the next one.  Voting against any and ALL who didn’t object.

    They then played the first 20 minutes of public comment

    I’m sure the City Council would love to do the same, every week.  To their credit, the listen to the same comments being made be different people from talking-point-sheets, over and over, as 85% of public comment, with a few unique views thrown in.  How are they going to handle this when there are both in-person and telephone comments in the new normal?  Meetings ending at sunrise, perhaps?

    and DiNunzio encouraged his colleagues to listen to the remainder at another point in time—after they had already made their decision.

    Yeah that’ll happen.  And ——- WHAT’s the POINT?  That’s like listening to the rocket engineer about O-ring cracks after the shuttle explodes.

    Oh, but that was a life & death matter.  Hmmmmm . . .

  4. Dave Hart

    I really do wonder if after hearing 20 minutes of comments anyone on the Board heard even one thing that was new.  The question they are confronting is very widely and deeply written on.  Why is it so hard to believe that not every single comment needs to be heard?  It would be true if we were governing by consensus in the community where 100% of us has to agree.  When you’re on a deliberative board, private or public, elected or appointed, and you take your job seriously you get to a point where you literally have “heard it all”.  That may not make people who like to hear themselves talk happy, but it’s the truth.  There’s only so much originality in opinion and thought on a subject and if the saturation point has been reached, you just don’t need to keep wallowing in it.

    1. Alan Miller

      people who like to hear themselves talk

      I resemble that remark 😐

      Again, the City is going to have one h´ll of time figuring out public comment after recovery.  Live plus phone – sunrise meetings?

    2. Ron Oertel

      The reason for public comment is not necessarily to change the minds of representatives, who have often already made up their minds.  For example, we already know that the council is usually going to approve (fill-in-the-blank) development proposal, regardless of opposition to it.

      Some might view blogs as an extension of public comment.

    3. Hiram Jackson

      Dave Hart: ‘I really do wonder if after hearing 20 minutes of comments anyone on the Board heard even one thing that was new.’

      When I hear public comment given at in person meetings, then pretty much all of the commenters are hearing each other before giving their own comments, and I find that tends to cause public comment to evolve more.  People are a little less inclined to repeat each other and more likely to make points that haven’t been brought up before.

      What we have now is each person crafting their own public comment independently of each other and then submitting it.  That makes the comments more repetitive, and for me a little more tedious to listen to, even when it’s a position I would tend to agree with.

      Maybe this issue will resolve somewhat when school board meetings are held in person again?

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