The Star-News

Cutting comment time was not a violation

Sat, Aug 18 2012 12:00 PM Posted By: Allison K. Sampité

An attorney with the Sweetwater Union High School District found no abuse by district board members of its bylaws or the Brown Act after a citizen alleged they illegally shortened and eliminated public comment during two consecutive board meetings.

Prop. O Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee member Kevin O’Neill wrote a letter to district board members last week citing the instances from its June and July meetings and asked for violations to be cured.

“It is unfortunate that, despite the presence of numerous concerned, active and well-informed citizens at the June and July SUHSD board meetings, their public comments, including my own, were either not heard or wrongly shortened,” O’Neill wrote Aug. 8.

Sweetwater district meetings are often packed with citizens wishing to speak during public comment, historically heard toward the beginning of the meeting.

At the July 23 meeting, public comment was reduced to five speakers at two minutes each and moved to the end of the meeting — a decision made by board President Pearl Quinones without a board vote.

“Moving public comments to the end of the meeting, which tends to occur around 10 p.m., hinders public input by forcing it at a later hour when public and board member attentiveness is waning and many interested citizens have had to leave to tend to their families,” O’Neill stated in the letter.

Board bylaw 9323c states that individual speakers are allowed three minutes to address the board on each agenda or non- agenda item, limiting the total time for public input to 20 minutes.

The district’s attorney Dan Shinoff said that, with board consent, the president could increase or decrease the time allowed for public presentation depending on the topic and number of speakers.

Consent merely requires that a majority of the board not object to limiting the number of speakers, according to Shinoff.

“Consent can come in different ways,” he said. “When it’s not specifically agendized and the president is charged with efficiently running the meeting… Ratification is the failure to object.”

Board member Bertha Lopez spoke in favor of hearing all public comments last month and said it wasn’t the first time she’s defended the public’s right to speak.

“The public are our constituents and they should have the right to be heard; this is the only way they can bring up concerns to the board and they should be respected and given the time,” Lopez said.

Public comment was completely eliminated for the June meeting, which was also adjourned without scheduling a continuation.

Board bylaws state a meeting can be adjourned to a later date but can only be extended once.

“Because the board is entitled to adjourn a meeting … prior to hearing, discussing and/or voting on all items on the agenda … the board was within its right to adjourn the June 2012 meeting without hearing public comment on all agendized/non-agendized items,” Shinoff stated in his response letter to O’Neill.

Shinoff said it is the board’s responsibility to weigh the importance of conducting the public’s business with public comment on non-agendized items.

“The board … has the discretion to determine when it is in the best interest of the district to hear public comment on non-agendized items,” Shinoff stated.

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