WSD Board Adds New Policy “Discouraging” Members Speaking Out During Public Comment Period
After nearly an hour of discussions that have at times turned heated, the Wausau School District School Board on Monday added a new policy aimed at preventing board members from speaking during the public comment period, interpreting this as a violation of the law on open state assemblies. .
The new provision, first introduced by Chairman of the Board Pat McKee and amended by Treasurer Lance Trollop, was passed by 7-2 and will be added to the Manual guide the public comments of the Board meeting. While the new provision avoids directly preventing a Council member from using the public comment phase to speak as a resident, the language clearly indicates the potential consequences of doing so.
“Board members participating as speakers during a public comment period may violate Wisconsin’s open meetings law,” Trollop said, reading his amendment. âA board member who participates as a speaker during a public comment period does so at his or her own risk under the law and without the approval of board members or the board as a whole. Further, any statement made by a Board member participating as a speaker during a public comment period does not necessarily represent the position of Board members or the Board as a whole and does not bind the Board in any way. .
The McKee version that was on the agenda for Monday’s board meeting as well as in a statement released by the WSD ahead of the meeting was intended to completely bar board members from participating as speakers. Trollop, who is a lawyer, said that while the provision prohibited members from using the public comment phase, there was no point in mentioning what members could or could not do. On the contrary, in his view, his version protected other Council members from any legal consequences arising from a member’s participation in public comments.
Legal adviser Kirk Strang, whose opinion was on the agenda to discuss the policy, said his understanding of the language of the Wisconsin open meetings law precluded school board members – which are organizations government – to play the role of the public. This was a violation of the open meetings law, he said, adding that the board could even forgo allowing public comment. Trollop agreed with this interpretation.
The Open Meetings Act leaves it to the discretion of a government body, such as a school board, to determine whether the public can be allowed to speak at public meetings.
“Although not mandatory, the Open Meetings Act allows a government body to reserve part of a public meeting as a public comment period,” said the WI Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide under âCitizen participationâ (page 22).
Council member Jane Rusch disagreed, saying the two lawyers she spoke to said council members could speak during the public comment period. She did not share any details. Rusch said the majority of the board has repeatedly blocked her proposals from appearing on the discussion agendas, silencing her.
“It’s very political,” said Rusch, who has spoken in the public comments twice since August. âThe majority of this council does not want to discuss COVID. I’m not asking to talk about something frivolous. I’ve asked every week to put COVID on the agenda just so we can get a feel for what’s going on in the district, what’s going on in the community. It is never on the agenda. So my only way to talk to my board and let them know how I’m feeling is by taking public comments. “
The council, which appears to have been reluctant to officially discuss COVID-19 and ignored guidance from public health facilities, finally did so on September 20 and made changes to mitigation strategies.
James Bouche, the vice chairman of the board, said there was an advantage in discussing the issue of public speaking and answering the questions that the topic raised in order to move forward . He disagreed with one of Strang’s previous suggestions – that the board could remove public comments under the Open Meetings Act if they so wished.
âI believe in public comments,â Bouche said. âI think it’s imperative that they tell us what they believe, because how are we going to find out? “
McKee sought Strang’s advice a week before board member Jane Rusch spoke at the education and operations committee meeting on August 23. Rusch hinted at wasting taxpayer dollars in an attempt to silence her and deny her First Amendment rights, a charge McKee refused.
Member Ka Lo, while siding with Rusch on his right to use the public comment period, said the episode was due to the “interpersonal relationship” between McKee and Rusch. Lo added that the rift between the two dates back a long time, before McKee even became chairman of the board, and unfairly involved other members in their dispute.
âYou are really putting us in a bad spot here,â Lo said. âMake us talk here and make these rule changes based on interpersonal relationships that have nothing to do with the school board as a wholeâ¦ it’s ridiculous.
His motion to reject the new public comment provision, supported by Rusch, was defeated by a voice vote.
Earlier, during the public comments, Bruce Grau raised questions about a “board member” who responded to his remarks during a September 27 meeting on a potential salary increase for Board members. However, the point only mentions the renewal of the salary of Council members, not an increase. McKee pointed this out shortly after Grau spoke.
Rusch had objected to McKee’s response later in that meeting.
Grau said he was attacked because of his comments, adding that the public should have the freedom to speak out without fear of reprisal.
“I was recently a victim of a violation of that decorum,” he said, noting that one person was allowed to comment on him. He also objected to the Council trying to “clarify” the public comment policy instead of taking steps to allow the public to exercise their First Amendment rights without fear.
Damakant Jayshi is a journalist for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a member of the body of Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project that places journalists in local newsrooms. Contact him at [email protected]