The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, October 27, 2021 1:00 am

NACS eyes revisions to public comments

Bylaw proposals come as board meetings get unruly

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Proposed revisions to a Northwest Allen County Schools bylaw about public participation at board meetings makes clear that disruptive, intimidating and threatening behavior won't be tolerated.

The use of profanity, raised voices, threatening gestures and physical force – or the threat of force – are among the behaviors that may result in removal from the meeting or the meeting being recessed or adjourned. Those details were part of a draft presented Monday to the board during a first reading.

Superintendent Chris Himsel read the document during a virtual meeting. The public could watch via YouTube.

The board – which has attracted disruptive, unruly audiences in recent months – shifted to a virtual format Oct. 13, and it held its first meeting without public comment Sept. 27. The board restructured its meetings because of increased safety concerns during and after board meetings.

“The board expects that all persons attending its meetings – including, but not limited to, members of the public who wish to speak during a portion of a meeting reserved for public comment – to treat all other persons with civility, courtesy and respect,” Himsel read. “This expectation in no way prohibits critical or unpopular comments.”

The draft's first sentence acknowledges public comment isn't guaranteed. It states, “the board may choose to include in the agenda for any particular meeting ... a period for public participation at its regular meetings.”

The proposed changes also shift some power from the presiding officer – typically the board president – to the board.

For example, in a section about rules the presiding officer shall follow, updated language indicates public participation shall be allowed at the board's discretion, not the presiding officer's.

Under the revisions, the presiding officer may still waive rules outlined in the bylaw, but with approval of a majority of the board members present.

Other proposed changes include:

• When on the agenda, public participation shall be limited to 30 minutes, although the board can vote to extend it.

• If there are more people wishing to address the board than can be heard in 30 minutes, the board may vote to limit speakers to those living within the district, employed by the district or having children in the district. The presiding officer also may select speakers using a random process.

Otherwise, anyone with a legitimate interest in the board's actions may participate, which is true under the existing bylaw.

• Individuals wishing to speak must sign up before the start of the meeting.

• No public participant may cede time to another speaker or speak more than once at the same meeting.

The presiding officer's options regarding disruptive attendees and inappropriate public comments remain unchanged. The officer may terminate certain public comments, including those that are obscene or repetitive; ask individuals to leave; ask law enforcement to remove attendees; and call for a recess or adjournment.

Board members didn't discuss the draft, but President Kent Somers indicated he will have edits.

Nov. 22 is the earliest the board could vote on the revisions.

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