Iowa City school board meeting gets heated in talk about public comment

New policy sets time limits, but also calls for 'civility and respect' in debate

The discussion got fiery Tuesday night as the Iowa City school board debated new guidelines on how to handle public comment at meetings.

At one point, board member Jeff McGinness got into a back and forth with a member of the public who regularly criticizes district officials and community members with whom she disagrees. It led to board President Sally Hoelscher telling the person to stop speaking and threatening to recess the meeting if the audience was not quiet.

In one exchange, it epitomized why the board was having the discussion.

The school board held the first reading of guidelines governing public comment at board meetings. No vote was taken, but Tuyet Dorau was the only board member to express opposition to the guidelines. Patti Fields was absent.

Board member Brian Kirschling said the guidelines are meant to supplement the current policy, not replace it.

The guidelines would give speakers three minutes, as is the current practice. They must conduct themselves with “respect and decorum” and cannot be “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory or lewd"; the existing policy says board members and the public will address each other with “civility and respect.”

That latter item in particular drew concern from community members.

Phil Hemingway, who frequently speaks at school board meetings, said public debate should be robust and may include vehement and caustic language.

“The First Amendment protections do not turn on the social worth of the statement,” he said.

Jennifer Babcock of North Liberty said there’s already “a climate of distrust” between the school board and the community caused by a lack of communication.

“This policy is setting up community members to be silenced,” she said.

In something not in the existing policy, the guidelines would put in place a process to sanction people who violate them, including a suspension from speaking at school board meetings.

The guidelines would apply to everyone, but some board members and school officials have indicated it’s a couple of people in particular that they consider problems. That would be Hemingway and Julie VanDyke.

Both have run for but failed to get elected to school board, with Hemingway narrowly losing the last two elections. Both attend almost every board meeting and speak several times each on various agenda items.  And both typically are harshly critical of board or administrative decisions and sometimes get personal with their comments.

At a December meeting when the public comment process was discussed, Hoelscher said one person submitted speaking forms for six items that night and another 11.

"We have some community members who are speaking more than board members are at meetings,” she said.

She did not name VanDyke and Hemingway, but she did not need to.

At the same meeting, board member Marla Swesey said the same people speak “over and over” and she has heard from people who are reluctant to participate because of that.

And it was VanDyke that McGinness argued with Tuesday night. He said he can handle criticism, but he cited a specific example of when she called an audience member a derogatory name.

He said the guidelines were aimed partly at her, and he said people say they are disinclined to speak at meetings for fear of being shouted down or called names. (Hemingway directs his comments at school officials, not other speakers.)

Paul Roesler of Iowa City, who was alone in supporting the guidelines among the 10 community members who addressed the board, said speakers are at times made uncomfortable by some people in the audience. As he was talking, VanDyke said something and distracted him.

Dorau said public officials should be able to handle criticism.“I think we’re stirring a pot that doesn’t need to be stirred,” she said.

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