Rancho Santa Fe School board has public comment discussion

The Rancho Santa Fe School board at the Feb. 2 meeting.
The Rancho Santa Fe School board at the Feb. 2 meeting.
(Karen Billing)

At the Feb. 2 Rancho Santa Fe School District board meeting, new board member Sarah Neal suggested the board revisit how they handle public comment, requesting that comments be allowed on each agenda item rather than just at the beginning of the meeting.

“I think we need to send a message to the community that their input is valued,” Neal said.

The board chose not to back Neal’s proposal in the interest of running effective meetings and board members also did not see that it had become an issue.

“I’m trying to think of what problem we’re solving because I’ve never been in a position in six years where someone didn’t get a chance to give the feedback they needed to or that they couldn’t make their views known,” RSF School District Board President Todd Frank said.

Neal pointed out that the policy in the board’s bylaws requires every agenda provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the board on “any item of interest within the subject matter jurisdiction of the board or any item on agenda before or during consideration of the item.”

“The policy is flexible,” Neal said. “But our practice appears to be consistently limited to only allowing the public to speak before the agenda item at the beginning of the meeting and I think there’s a lot of reasons to consider allowing a little bit more opportunity for the public to give comments during agenda items.”

Neal said allowing comment during an item would allow for more “meaningful” input as they would be able to hear the description and discussion of the item. She also believes it would be more efficient because a topic would only be addressed once (rather than at the beginning and again when the item is reached).

“Our meetings aren’t that long and we don’t have a lot of public comment so I think it seems like within reason and we can still keep our meetings efficient and effective,” Neal said.

At neighboring San Dieguito Union High School District, members of the public fill out speaker slips denoting which agenda item they would like to speak to. There is also time for non-agenda public comment at the end of each board meeting. The Del Mar Union School District operates similarly, but non-agenda public comment is held at the beginning of the meeting.

When the boards reach the agenda item, the board members decide whether to discuss the item first or hear from speakers first.

RSF School District board member Scott Kahn voiced concern that public comment on items could turn into a question and answer session with the board.

“This is a public meeting of the board,” board clerk Marti Ritto said, noting it’s not meant to be a Q&A or interactive session and that the president has the latitude to include or not include input as appropriate. “The intention of this meeting is really just to be our functional meeting in public.”

Neal said she understood that the public can’t “steer” the board meeting but thought they could possibly achieve a balance as the meetings are the public’s only real opportunity to address the board. She said Rancho Santa Fe is a small community and members should be able to hear the board’s discussion and ask questions or seek clarity on issues.

Frank said during his period on the board, there hasn’t been a time where they haven’t allowed the public a chance to comment during a board meeting. He said there’s always been an opportunity for everyone to say what they need to say, even if it took multiple meetings.

In the past, particularly on the issue of Spanish, there have been times when members of the public have had to return to the next month’s meeting to address what was discussed the previous month because comment was not allowed on the agenda item after they heard the board’s discussion. Where Spanish was concerned, town hall meetings were later held.

“What we don’t want is an argumentative type of a situation,” Frank said of public comment. “And when we have needed more or felt like the public had more to give us, we’ve had other meetings that are more town-hall style which are more back and forth and interactive.”

Neal quesioned what the harm would be in allowing the change and allowing members of the public to choose when they address the board.

“There’s no harm in it. It’s up to the president to run an effective meeting and I think as far as I’ve seen in the last six years that’s been done,” Frank said.