Commentary: School Board’s Truncating Public Comment Looks Even Worse Now

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By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – On Tuesday night the Davis City Council listened to about 35 public comments. That ran somewhat over an hour overall. They were able to hear everyone out on the issue of police reform, then they had their discussion and they finished the item late into the evening.

Talking to some of the members of council and city staff before the meeting, I asked them if they planned to cut off public comment after 20 minutes—the answer was an unequivocal no. To a person they expressed shock that the school board would do that and some felt, if the council attempted that move, it would probably lead to a recall effort.

Instead, their plan if they got 100 comments—like the council did on issues like DISC and University Commons—was they would simply listen to public comment, reconvene on Wednesday and have their discussion and take their vote.

As it turned out, the community groups collecting the signatures for the letter—over 600 individuals and groups—encouraged their members to write the council rather than speak during public comment.

One group asked for “restraint in oral public comment” to allow the “council to address the topic.” “The exception would be those with professional or lived experience,” one group wrote.

The council took this approach even though they were fairly unified on this issue. The ones I spoke to felt it was simply their public duty to listen to the public prior to making what could be a momentous and far-reaching decision.

Contrast that with the approach that the school board took on the very contentious issue of school re-opening. The decision to cut off public comment after 20 minutes looks even worse now in light of (a) the approach that the council took, and also (b) because the vote ended up 3-2 with Leah Darrah and Vigdis Asmundson voting no.

The decision by the school board was even more questionable given that the initial discussion came quickly at the end of spring break with limited public notice. Whereas, in the council’s case, the public knew for at least a month that the police discussion was coming, there was a lot of run up to it, and the issue was well discussed in critical circles.

The item was “legally posted” by the board 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.

What makes the decision more baffling is that the school board didn’t even vote on the matter that night. On the Sunday special meeting, they could have easily had 90 minutes to two hours of public comment, had their 90 minutes of discussion and still been done before 10 pm.

The council meeting ended up going past 11, but the thought of truncating public comment was never entertained.

The school board could have decided to listen to public comment and then push the discussion to the next day if they didn’t want to go late.

Moreover, they cut off public comment, as I said, on an issue that was very contentious, even among the board.

This wasn’t a 5-0 vote. It was a 3-2. DiNunzio, Adams and Betsy Hyder all voted to go to five-day in-person instruction.

But Lea Darrah and Vidgis Asumundson both voted against the proposal, stating that they preferred a four-day in-person model that would include one day of distance learning for all students.

I’m not a huge fan of long public comment, to be honest. It definitely gets repetitive after a few commenters. But simply playing the first 20 minutes isn’t a good solution to that. There is no way to tell how representative the public commenters that you hear are.

Moreover, this isn’t issue oriented. I was actually supportive of the five-day model where students will attend in person class for about 2 to 3 hours a day in the mornings and then go to distance learning in the afternoon.

The problem wasn’t the outcome, it was the process. Some want to argue that we don’t have a direct democracy, we have a representative democracy. We actually have a participatory democracy where we allow for elements of direct democracy and representative democracy, and bake into the deliberation process an opportunity for open and public discussion, deliberation and voting.

That’s why we have things like the Brown Act and Open Government laws to guide the public process. That’s why the biggest function of state and federal legislatures is to have constituent service and allow for constituents to voice their opinions through official correspondence or public comment.

The school board will likely get away with this. I sense no real appetite by parents to mount a recall over this. But it is sad that the only real recourse here would be the drastic step of recall.

—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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