Baldwin-Whitehall school board's public-comment policy has its naysayers
An electronic clock projected on the wall ticks down from three minutes to a flashing zero as a resident shares an opinion with the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board.
The district's policy for public participation, which includes holding each resident to three minutes to make a comment during each public-comment period — sometimes there are two — is too rigid and creates an “inappropriate administrative barrier” by requiring those wanting to participate to officially register two days in advance, said Melissa Melewsky, media-law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
“It really tells the public, ‘We're not interested in what you have to say,'” Melewsky said. “I think they're required to do better.”
Board members on May 14, in a 6-3 vote, approved a revised public-participation policy that gives the board the power to limit the total time for public comments at the end of a meeting to 30 minutes and formally set time limits for individuals. A person also is allowed to comment only “one time per meeting on any subject.”
The school board previously used a three-minute timer, but the limit wasn't in the formal policy.
Board member Tracy Macek, who voted against the policy revisions, along with Karen Brown and David Solenday, said the policy is “just a way to micromanage the public.”
The policy allows the presiding officer to interrupt or terminate a person's public comment if it's “too lengthy, personally directed, abusive or obscene.” The presiding officer also, in the policy, has the power to terminate a person's comment recess or call for a recess or adjournment to another time if “lack of public decorum interferes with the orderly conduct of the meeting.”
While time limits for public comment are not uncommon, Melewsky said, they need to allow for flexibility based on the situation at hand.
Brown compared the board's expectations for the public with how they themselves act.
“To me this is a public meeting. We are here to serve the public, yet we want to restrict the public and give free rein to the board. I don't think that's fair,” she said.
Board President Larry Pantuso responded: “This is not a public meeting. It's a board meeting for board business that is open to the public. That's the difference.”
Pantuso said he reviewed public-participation policies from at least five other school districts and that this one is “actually not much different” from the earlier policy in Baldwin-Whitehall, which gave “a whole lot of power to whoever is presiding over a meeting to basically call the shots however they want.”
Melewsky said that a school board meeting is a public meeting, where the public is invited to participate.
Resident attendance at board meetings, which once topped 300 people after a Nov. 19 decision by the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board to hire longtime board member Martin Michael Schmotzer as a top administrator for $120,000, progressively has dwindled during the last several months. Schmotzer resigned from the job two weeks after taking it and was sworn in for a new term on the school board.
Since Nov. 19, board members have moved to adjourn meetings at least twice because of public decorum. The motions failed both times.
Whitehall resident Brian Rampolla said he agrees with many aspects of the policy.
“There's a lot of emphasis in here on public decorum,” Rampolla said. “That same respect for decorum applies for all of the board members.”
Rampolla said he thinks the removal of Whitehall resident Tom Barchfeld from an April meeting was an inappropriate application of the policy. Later that month, Barchfeld received a letter from Baldwin-Whitehall Solicitor Bruce Dice banning him from all district property.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.