In the years leading up to the pandemic, most Americans were hyper-focused on national-level politics, with Trump, the Democrats or the Republicans seemingly responsible for everything good or bad in …
In the years leading up to the pandemic, most Americans were hyper-focused on national-level politics, with Trump, the Democrats or the Republicans seemingly responsible for everything good or bad in the nation.
Of course, Covid changed so much. People began to realize that the little boards operating right in their backyards were actually powerful and impactful.
If they were frustrated by mandatory quarantine and student masking rules, they quickly discovered that the local school committee set those rules. If they were miffed by the increasing escrow payments on their mortgage during a global pandemic, they discovered the local town council approved those tax increases.
At the same time the influence of local governance was coming into focus, so too were the boards themselves. Barred from meeting in person, they adopted Zoom and remote formats where anyone in the world could “attend” a local meeting from their kitchen or couch.
Thanks to the pandemic, the public’s interest in local government is higher than it has been in many years — which is why a new American Civil Liberties Union Rhode Island (ACLU) report is so striking. Across Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns, the ACLU found vastly different interpretations of the state’s Open Meetings Law and the formats for “public comment” at live meetings.
Some local boards offer no formal public comment period. Many restrict the time allowed for public comment. Many others restrict comments to items on the agenda for that meeting — or items NOT on the agenda for that meeting. Some require registration in advance; others allow anyone to stand up and speak if inspired to do so in the moment. Many have policies describing what people should not do, like talk about “personnel” or “personalities,” or be “uncivil” or “inappropriate” (good luck getting a clear definition of what those mean).
Within the report, the ACLU includes a series of best practices, which not surprisingly are designed to make public comment periods open, flexible and easy for all, with no restrictions on free speech or the First Amendment. Adhering to these standards can create a burden on the boards, and their leadership, to balance the public’s interests while productively holding a meeting on vitally important matters.
Yet such is the burden of leadership. Town councils and school committees hold enormous power over issues that impact daily life for the people living within their communities. They need to be as open and accessible as possible, to preserve one of the most important principles of this democracy.
The public shares a voice in its government. It always has, and it always should.