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KATIE ZERR: Zealous pursuit can backfire on public

Should the manner in which meetings are conducting depend on how the public and the board interact?
Watching recent Walworth County Commission meetings has been a bit painful for several reasons. Some actions taken by this board have been questionable. Questions on the manner in which they come to those decisions sometimes deserve to be answered.
But when they refuse to answer questions or have a reason why possibilities were not considered it does not look good in the public’s eye.
As Walworth County State’s Attorney Jamie Hare commented at Tuesday’s meeting, “There are implications of impropriety when questions aren’t answered. The public doesn’t feel they are being protected by their government.”
He was absolutely right about the “pitchforks and torches” comment. When the public decides government is not being operated in a clear and transparent manner, when encouraged and embolden by their contemporaries, they will take up the tools of protest and march.
Taxpayers have been attending commission meetings, armed with pointed questions about decisions made and some with comments aimed at the commission itself. Some of these questions are extremely relevant while others have been a constant barrage with a demanding undertone that can be interpreted as disruptive.
Clarification of the last comment is clearly needed.
When a person dealing with a public board, in a manner in which can be considered by others as badgering, one loses the support of those either attending or watching. When the line is crossed between protector of our rights and zealousness, support will wane.
This board has made decisions that have been questionable, but we elected them to make those decisions. Like all public boards, it is only as strong or as weak as we the taxpayers make it.
We chose the members of these boards at the ballot box and those who chose to serve our community have a tough job. They sometimes have to make extremely difficult decisions.
We often see when it comes to election time, few are willing to step forward and run for public office. There should never be an instance when no one steps up to challenge a sitting board member, unless we, as a people, are content with the manner in which they are doing their job.
When they are harangued in the public, which is now taking place on the county level, it is counter-productive for both the board and those using certain types of tactics to get their points across.
These taxpayers make very valid points. These questions should be asked, but not in the manner in which some of this line of questioning has occurred.
Even as a protector of the First Amendment, there have been times when I have shaken my head at the manner in which these taxpayers have approached their purpose.
The information is public. The public has a right to know. But disruptive comments from the back of the room during a meeting only makes the commission dig its heels in. It also makes the people who make those comments (which can clearly be heard on the tapes of those meetings) come across as snippy and rude, not as protectors of the public’s right to know.
The public’s ability to speak directly to a government board, a city council, a school board, a county commission, is a basic form of citizen participation. But surprisingly the Constitution does not really guarantee citizens a right to be heard before their elected officials make a decision. Many court battles have been fought over this very issue. Some have gone all the way to the Supreme Court. It is a very interesting read to see how the court has ruled in some of these cases.
The commission has now taken steps to limit the public’s input at these meetings. It does so with the with the blessing of the State of South Dakota.
South Dakota Codified Law 1-25-1 states “The chair of the public body shall reserve at every official meeting by the public body a period for public comment, limited at the chair’s discretion, but not so limited as to provide for no public comment.”
We all have the right to comment and those who don’t understand how to go about doing that will have to learn. But this is a product of the manner in which they went about it in the first place. If a member of the public becomes personal with their comments, is considered rude or makes slanderous remarks, they can be limited.
During a public forum, taxpayers have their time as provided by that board. They cannot disallow the public from speaking, unless it becomes disruptive and or disorderly. A government body may have a speaker who causes a disturbance, shouting, refusing to leave after the expiration of a time limit, removed from that meeting without violating the First Amendment.
But for this board, it is imperative for them to remember the law. Once a board agrees to accept public comment, the commenting system cannot be operated in a discriminatory or viewpoint-restrictive way.
A board only has so much time to do the city’s, school district’s and county’s business. When so much of that time is spent dealing with public, the purpose is defeated.
– Katie Zerr –