Public meetings may be required by Indiana statute, but that doesn't mean the public gets to speak.
When the Allen County Commissioners announced guidelines last week for the public comment section of its meetings, they were among the last local governmental bodies to do so. Rich Beck, president, went out of his way to assure constituents the commissioners did want to hear from them, but within some boundaries that included identifying themselves before speaking, keeping comments to three minutes or fewer and making just one trip to the podium per meeting.
The guidelines are more fluid than, say, those of Fort Wayne City Council. Its policy limits public comments to two minutes, at which time speakers are cut off.
And both bodies do more than is required by Indiana law, says Steve Key, Hoosier State Press Association executive director and general counsel. Indiana law gives Hoosiers the right to observe and record public meetings but doesn't guarantee they can comment, he said, with the exception of particular hearings where public input is specifically sought.
Nonetheless, Key said, he encourages public officials to accommodate public input because they might learn something and because constituents expect it.
Increasingly, those expectations have become more confrontational. You can group it under adults behaving badly.
Carmel Clay Schools near Indianapolis this week announced that those attending board meetings should expect to pass through metal detectors and “may be subject to pat down based upon metal detector activation.” The policy, according to the Indianapolis Star, followed a July 26 school board meeting at which a handgun fell from a man's pocket. It is a felony in Indiana to have a gun on school property.
In Tennessee, a group of parents surrounded health care workers outside of a Williamson County School District board meeting this week, following their testimony advocating for a mask mandate. Those protesting mask usage shouted obscenities and threatened “we know who you are” and “we will find you,” according to the Nashville Tennessean. The board passed the mask mandate for students and faculty members anyway.
In Loudoun County, Virginia, the turmoil at a school board meeting in late June was over critical race theory and transgender rights. Police arrested one person later charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and another was cited for trespassing, according to CNN.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of incidents around the country involving public interaction – uncivil interaction – with those elected to represent them and with other members of the community with differing views.
Allen County residents have not made national news, but it doesn't mean we're immune to the rising hostility of public discourse. There have been instances of name calling, obscenity-laced rants and threats to officials.
Residents motivated to get more involved in what is going on in our communities and our schools should be a positive. But when they use social media, public comment periods at meetings, and ambushes in parking lots to browbeat, threaten or bully those who don't think like them, that's anything but positive. And doing that in the presence, even if allegedly on behalf of children, is toxic.
There is security at all Fort Wayne Community School board meetings, confirmed spokeswoman Krista Stockman. “Even though we haven't experienced what other districts have, we just know it is a really politically charged environment right now,” she said. “We want to make sure we are prepared.”
Other Allen County school districts and government entities arrange for extra security when they are expecting large crowds or for particularly controversial issues. The new public guidelines for the county commissioners followed a July 30 meeting that lasted six minutes and was followed by 28 minutes of public comment from four people who shared their concerns about coronavirus-related restrictions and vaccinations, according to The Journal Gazette's Devan Filchak.
“More structure and more decorum, I guess, is what we are after,” Beck said when announcing the new guidelines, “because it was not that last week.”
If adults don't model civil behavior and respectful disagreement, children are unlikely to display it either. Shouting the loudest, constantly interrupting, and demeaning or even threatening those you disagree with is likely to produce the next generation of bullies.
“I remind people often that children are watching you, and the way you behave sets the tone for not just your children but other children,” Stockman said.
Let's keep it civil.