Boards should encourage, not stifle public comment

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the San Luis Coastal Unified School District board revised its public comment policy. The board decided to keep the existing policy but is modifying the way that policy is explained and applied to ensure greater transparency.

It’s time for some frank talk about public comment. But first, some background: Over the past few months, we’ve seen two local agencies — the Board of Supervisors and San Luis Coastal Unified School District — sometimes struggle to give the public a voice while still maintaining order.

At the county board, some speakers stepping up to the microphone have been downright abusive — especially on the topic of the romantic relationship between County Supervisor Bruce Gibson and his legislative aide.

In the aftermath of one those rants, Gibson suggested that it may be time to “have a conversation about what we consider relevant public comment and a discussion about what we need to do about repetitious public comment.”

We disagree.

Certainly, public speakers have a duty to keep the discourse civil — that includes refraining from offensive speech and personal attacks — and when they fail, public officials should intervene.

But we don’t believe that officials should subjectively decide what’s relevant or repetitious.

Efforts to restrict subject matter will only be interpreted as an attempt to discourage free speech, and that’s the last message public officials should want to convey.

After all, if someone has taken the time and trouble to attend a meeting in order to address a public agency, elected officials should find a way to hear him or her out which brings us to the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.

The district was criticized recently for limiting public comment to 20 minutes during a contentious hearing on the future of Teach Elementary School. That prompted the school board to review a policy that gives it the discretion to limit comment to 20 minutes.

The board decided to keep the existing policy but is modifying the way that policy is explained and applied to ensure greater transparency.

The entire school board — not just the board president — can decide whether to invoke the “20 minute rule.” Also, the decision will be announced in advance of the discussion, so everyone will be aware of what’s going on.

That’s an improvement, but we still see trouble ahead.

By putting an arbitrary time limit on comment, some speakers are bound to be denied a turn at the microphone and will feel their concerns went unheard.

And who will decide who gets to speak during the 20 minutes? Will it be first come/first served, or perhaps a lottery?

If the school board — or any other elected body — truly believes that lengthy comments are interfering with business, we strongly urge it to find some other way to speed things up.

The city of Berkeley, for example, gives its council the option of limiting speakers to one minute each when more than 10 people are testifying. That’s more evenhanded.

We question, though, whether even that type of policy is really needed here, since it’s relatively rare to see huge crowds at public hearings.

In fact, we’ve seen plenty of important government business take place with just a handful of people in the audience — and no public comment at all.

That’s unfortunate, because good public testimony helps officials to understand how a proposal might affect their constituents. It’s also a key component of the public review process; we’ve often seen compromises reached and projects improved in response to concerns raised during public comment.

Granted, public testimony also can be repetitious, rambling and occasionally incomprehensible. It can cause a meeting to drag, and it can test the patience not only of those in the room, but also those monitoring via TV or Internet.

In short, public comment can be messy — but at the same time, it’s essential to democracy.

We urge public agencies to put more emphasis on encouraging public participation, and less on trying to control it.