March 8, 2011
Say what you want, "at the discretion of the chair"

To the Editor:

Last night Phil Pancoast successfully moved to modify the school board's policy concerning public comment at meetings. The original policy called for fifteen minutes to be designated for this purpose, and allowed extension of this time by majority will of the board. Phil proposed two changes to the substance of the policy:

  1. Removal of the specification of fifteen minutes, replaced with simply "time shall be set aside." His expressed motive for doing this was to prevent this language from being used as a "cudgel, to bang [them] over the heads," should they prematurely close public comment, as happened recently.

  2. Addition of language specifying that the duration of public comment "shall be at the discretion of the chair." The effect of this change is to give the chair the ability to silence individual speakers and to close public comment at any time, and it does not restrict this power to any set of circumstances or conditions. In fact, an effort to include language that allows the board to override the chair's decision was defeated. 

Among the causes to invoke this new power, Phil cited the presence of "other avenues" through which a topic brought before the board could be pursued. 

I wonder how residents would react if the Budget Committee were to institute a policy wherein the chair could shut off public comments when he determines that there are "other avenues" available: "No more from you, you can write a letter to the Goffstown News," or "Stop talking, you already have a blog," or "Hey, tell it to the Selectmen." Phil should have cut to the chase, and simply proposed that the policy allow for "time to be set aside for public compliment, during which residents may say to the chair things which generally please and elevate him." 

The language of the new policy would be somewhat less troubling if it were not for a recent event in which the chair closed public comment prematurely, causing some controversy; in this context, the change is clearly aimed at providing the chair with means to repeat this action with impunity in the future. 

I urge you to hold the school board accountable for this move, which sucks the oxygen out the environment in which free and open discussion previously occurred.

Paul Augros





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