By Megan Kelley
The Lake Orion Community Schools Board of Education met last week for their regularly scheduled meeting and the docket included several first readings of a policy updates and discussion on those updates.
The Policy Committee, made up of board Vice President Birgit McQuiston and Trustees Scott Taylor and Susan Flaherty, met earlier this month to discuss 29 policies and one bylaw.
Despite having that many policies to discuss, a majority of the changes were made in order to stay in compliance to state law, Taylor said.
The largest change, however, came with Policy 0167.3, or Public Participation at Board Meetings.
The changes made in this first reading included:
• The requirement that those who wish to speak during public participation sign in prior to the start of the meeting.
• Limiting public participation to 60 minutes, but the timeframe would be extended, if necessary, in order to give everyone their chance to speak.
• Allowing each speaker five minutes unless the total number of speakers exceeds 60 minutes, then the presiding officer may change the limit to three minutes.
Treasurer Jake Singer said he was concerned with changing the current five minutes to three minutes should the overall public participation time exceed 60 minutes.
“As a person who used to address the board and as a person who gets addressed by the board, the five minutes is a preparation time. People come in organized for a five-minute limit. So, to tell them ‘Oh, because too many people showed up that night you only get three (minutes)’ — I don’t think that’s fair to people.
“So, if we want to move the limit down to three minutes, let’s move it to three minutes across the board,” Singer said. “If it’s five minutes, I would like to leave it at five minutes because people do prepare for five minutes.”
Currently, on the backside of the LOCS agenda packets, which are available at each meeting, there is language that states “an individuals time is limited to five minutes, but may be modified by the president.”
Superintendent Ben Kirby explained that despite that language already existing, the district wanted to move it over to policy so that there wasn’t any confusion about it not being in their board policy, but in their board practice.
“This isn’t any kind of way to intentionally reduce the time, but recognizing that this is a meeting of the board in public – that is the primary function of this – we still want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to speak, but that time may be reduced if there is an extended number of people,” Kirby said.
Board President Jim Weidman said that despite the ability to change the time limit, in the 21 years he has been on the board they have never done so. He noted that there could be a time where so many people show up that it is “logistically impossible” to get through them all.
“I remember, many years ago, there was an issue in the district and we had a public participation related to the meeting. It was held in the gym at Elizabeth Street School and it went until two in the morning,” Weidman said. “Well, when people are speaking at 1:30 in the morning on a weeknight, who is listening?”
While Singer understood where Weidman was coming from, he still did not believe that giving soul power to change the participation time limit should lie in the hands of the presiding officer and should instead need a majority of board approval.
“It can be discussed and the board can take action on it, that’s no problem. But I think we have to maintain some flexibility here from the standpoint that should that occasion arise, it logistically doesn’t make sense to extend to two in the morning, that was a tactical error,” Weidman said. “It’s not fair to the people who have to sit until then to talk and have people who are pretty worn out after sitting there for seven hours to hear their message. It’s about receiving the message too.”
Flaherty and Taylor explained that in their original meeting, they had discussed keeping the five minute time limit in place despite most boards in the state only allowing three minutes.
“We talked about it for quite a while and we didn’t want to reduce the five minutes to three minutes. We were trying to allow the five minutes where (it is) reasonable and it’s always been reasonable, so far,” Flaherty said. “We didn’t want to go to three minutes and limit (it) because I think everyone enjoys the five minutes. People utilize that.”
Singer suggested making the option available should the overall public participation go over two hours instead of one, which would allow 24 speakers at five minutes, rather than 12 speakers at five minutes.
“Maybe that’s the compromise: extend the time limit to two hours of public participation. Not everybody has to use their five minutes, but we have had times already this year where we have had more than 12 people and that would be my concern that we would be cutting people that planned on five minutes down to three (minutes),” Singer said. “For two hours we should be willing to sit here and listen to each person for five minutes.”
Trustee Danielle Bressett added that the policy should be consistent to avoid confusion down the road.
Weidman took a position on changing the policy to allow three minutes across the board instead of five; however, several board members did not want to take away the five-minute option.
During public participation, one district parent, Nick Stevens, started off by telling the board that he signed up to speak just in case they “changed” the “rules”, referring to the change from being able to sign up for public participation at arrival to having to sign up before the meeting.
“If you want to shorten it (from) five (to) three minutes, that is your right to do, but the Open Meetings Act says that you have to listen to everyone. So, if you give 10 seconds and you have all of Lake Orion come, then you’re going to be here until two in the morning,” Stevens said. “While we all want to go to bed, you work for us. You work for the people. If you’re here until four in the morning to take care of our kids, then you do it.”
Ultimately, the board decided to send that particular policy back to the policy committee for further discussion.
However, the board decided to keep in place the section that requires that speakers sign up prior to the start of the meeting. That section will go on to a second reading that is expected to take place during the next board meeting on Dec. 1.