LBI School Board’s Enforcement of Public Comment Policy Irks, Confuses

Aug 29, 2018

Nearly a year after being handed a resounding defeat to a school expansion and renovation referendum, the Long Beach Island Board of Education has pushed past its differences to work toward a solution – that is, unless the solution includes questions from the public.

For the second time this year, the relationship between the board and members of the public was put through the paces at a regularly scheduled meeting where members of the public attempted to be heard. Like many other boards and governing bodies, the school board offers two public comment periods during the course of a meeting. The first comment period is on agenda items only. The second, which occurs at the end of the meeting, can be about anything – unless, as attendees learned last week, it’s in the form of a question.

Ship Bottom resident Steve Moser, who reworded a question about outdated equipment being given away during the first public comment, addressed the board a second time. He did so after a confused member of the audience asked whether she would be allowed to ask a question since she didn’t know if she could change the wording to make it just a comment.

“Restricting comments is wrong,” Moser said, addressing school board President James Donahower, who indicated earlier in the meeting that questions would no longer be considered during public comment. What wasn’t clear at that time is whether Donahower was referring to comments regarding agenda items.

Moser continued by telling Donahower the board is elected by the voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City. If parents and other members of the general public can’t question their elected representatives or don’t feel comfortable questioning them, then how will their concerns be heard?

Donahower, in part, said he was enforcing the current policy regarding public comment as it is clearly written: comments, not questions. He blamed past issues with certain members of the public who, he said, “started fights” with district officials.

Earlier this year, after a barrage of questions about the district’s transparency, as well as the unrelenting condemnation of school officials, Donahower had enough and let the public know it.

“I blew my fuse because I am sick of people attacking our administration and the board,” he later said of the Jan. 16 meeting. “Yes, I understand there is a legacy of bad blood both within the board and between the board and various members of the community. It is an old problem in need of new solutions. But in that moment at the meeting, I took it personally. I thought: Why am I being barked at about trust and transparency again?”

With the addition of two new board members, Ship Bottom’s William Fenimore and Surf City’s John McMenamin, the board appears to have put its own divisiveness, for the most part, to rest. And its relationship with the public seemed improved, too.

But Donahower said as much as he wants a conversation with the public, which he described as a small, friendly community, it just wasn’t working in a positive way.

“It was way too combative. That’s just a sad fact,” he said. “I want it to be conversational, but we can’t let it get back to as it was before.”

Some board members, too, were confused with the change in how public comments were being handled. Bonnie Picaro, who missed last month’s meeting, questioned whether there had been a policy change.

There wasn’t, according to Colette Southwick, board vice president.

“It’s always just been public comment,” Southwick explained. “We’ve allowed people to ask questions here, but we didn’t always answer in the moment. Some were very technical questions. You can 100 percent ask questions; it might not be answered right then. If it’s a simple question, James has the authority to answer it.”

Donahower said the public can still ask questions of any district official or school board member by calling the district or through email. And they can get their point across without asking a question.

“Steve did a good job of that earlier, changing his wording,” the board president said. “It’s just as effective. What we’re doing is rebalancing the power.”

Other school boards have similar public comment policies in place, including the Stafford Township Board of Education. The policy was put into play during a recent contentious salary negotiation.

— Gina G. Scala

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