Public comment scenarios asked and answered

No matter how many ways the question was asked, the answer was the same.

Let the public speak.

Maryam Judar, executive director and community lawyer for the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, attended the Hinsdale High School District 86 Board meeting Oct. 29 to speak on “Public Comment: Good for Democracy.” Her presentation was part of a settlement agreement reached earlier this year with several district residents over alleged First Amendment and Open Meetings Act violations stemming from a Dec. 12, 2019, board meeting.

In the Q&A that followed her presentation, two board members — President Kevin Camden in particular — seemed most interested in identifying exceptions that would allow the board to stop public comment.

Judar did not vary in her responses.

What if someone criticizes a staff member?

“You’re not the defamation police. I know you don’t want people talking badly about the staff and you can say that. You can implore people to do that. You can’t mandate it.”

What if a statement is inaccurate?

“Allow people to do their three minutes’ talk and they sit down. And then if they said something that is not right — because you know that it’s wrong — you have the dais. You guys have all the power to say, ‘Oh, I want to correct the record.’ ”

Racist remarks? Anti-gay? Misogynistic?

“It’s distasteful, but they get to say what they want to say during those three minutes.”

To be clear, none of the speakers involved in the Dec. 12 board meeting uttered anything of that sort. They simply wanted to share comments then-Assistant Superintendent Carol Baker had said at her home district’s school board meeting — comments that seemed to contradict her curriculum recommendation to the District 86 board. But the speakers were shut down.

Lately Camden has found a new way to more or less shut down public comment — by moving it to the final item on the board agenda. It should come as no surprise that all comments at the Oct. 29 meeting were offered via email. Unfortunately, reading (and writing) these opinions on the move to integrated math was a moot point, as the board had already voted on the issue 12 agenda items earlier.

Those wishing to articulate them in person would have had to arrive before the start of the meeting to sign in, then wait hours for their three minutes.

Judar said the public deserves consistency from the board and should not be denied the right to participate simply for being a couple minutes tardy.

“The important thing is to be constant, to stay with the same schedule where public comment is always appearing at the same time,” she said. “It’s unfair that someone comes to your meeting prepared to speak and you’re not giving them that opportunity that you set aside during your meeting to let them speak for lack of having signed in.”

Camden shocked us — and others — with his unprofessional use of inflammatory terms in an ill-advised attempt to make a point about problematic speech. To his credit, he did ask Judar to send district officials a copy of the center’s suggested wording for welcoming public comment.

Let’s hope he uses it.