By Amber Friend, The Leavenworth Times
When, in a 4-2 vote, the Garden City Community College Board of Trustees passed a motion Tuesday that suspended public comments at board meetings indefinitely, three community members, two of whom had voiced their concerns at meetings in the past, left the room out of frustration.
The decision comes after a busy year for the platform. After over a year of mostly silent public comment forums, students, GCCC faculty and staff, community members and lawyers have regularly used the space to voice concerns, gratitude and opinions regarding the college to trustees, administrators and other invested taxpayers. Since March 2018, there has been only one regular meeting where no one signed up to speak.
The influx isn’t random. Locals have come forward to discuss allegations of sexual harassment by former GCCC Cheer Coach Brice Knapp, allegations of a toxic work environment and retaliatory behavior by former GCCC President Herbert Swender, trustees’ inaccessibility, legal issues and investigations at the college, among other issues. Speakers have been passionate and direct, and heated moments are not uncommon.
GCCC President Ryan Ruda and Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness and Accountability Jacque Messinger were consulted about the suspension before the vote and have expressed their full support, Trustees Chairman Blake Wasinger said. GCCC Director of Public Relations Ashley Salazar said in an email that Ruda referred back to a press release regarding the change, reiterating that “this is a temporary suspension ... to ensure the decorum of the board meetings.”
To some of those who used the allotted time, the suspension, even if temporary, is a loss.
“Because of the public comment portions, so much has been able to come to light and be shared with the community, and community participation in the college hasn’t been higher in a time frame that I’m aware of,” said Zach Worf, who used public comments to voice his concerns with GCCC administration last year. “It gives us an opportunity to hold the board and the college that’s using our tax dollars accountable, and that’s just one more aspect that’s been taken from us.”
GCCC public comments have gained restrictions over the years. In 2013, a standard five-minute per person time limit appeared on agendas, and in February 2018, rules of decorum were added and speakers were barred from discussing personnel, litigation and violations of laws or ordinances. The content restrictions dropped in August after The Telegram inquired about their legality.
Public comment is not required under the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which the accreditation agency, the Higher Learning Commission, uses for guidance on violations, said Steve Kauffman, HLC public information officer.
But, a government entity restricting an established public forum is “in tension” with the First Amendment, said Lauren Bonds, interim executive director and legal director at the ACLU of Kansas. Ultimately, she said, it comes down to why the speech is being restricted.
“It’s the fact that this is a government entity organization and they’ve created a space that’s explicitly for the public to give feedback to public officials ... Any time when you’re closing a public forum or limiting speech within a public forum, there’s going to be implications there,” Bonds said.
Kent Williams and Garden City attorney Bob Lewis both used the public comments to speak out about their concerns at the college in 2018. Meeting minutes mean public comments are on the record, Williams said, and both the public and news media are present for the conversation, Lewis said.
Besides that, Worf said, the time is also beneficial for those who don’t speak. When people speak out during public comment, the information is for everyone. Instead of uncomfortable conversations happening behind closed doors, everyone present has a chance to get to know speakers, ask questions and learn from each other, he said.
Wasinger said that even without public comment, trustees are available and urge people to communicate with them. Trustees have new Broncbuster email addresses that go directly to each member, he said, and all are willing to meet with locals. Suspending public comment will not limit the public’s ability to talk to trustees, he said.
Worf disagrees with the sentiment. He emailed a concern to all six trustees’ new addresses last month, asking that they verify they received the message. Of the six trustees, Wasinger and Trustees Merilyn Douglass and Terri Worf responded, though only Terri Worf acknowledged and responded to the original concern and Douglass responded two weeks later. It was not an effective way to communicate with the board, Zach Worf said.
Callie Dyer, LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition executive director, also had trouble making headway with the college on her own, turning to public comments twice in April 2018 and January 2019 to discuss a tobacco-free campus after finding no success emailing and speaking personally to board members and former administrators.
Taking away public comment is the board’s prerogative, but elected officials should listen to the people, Dyer said. She said she thinks some board members are selective about who they listen to, and not all locals may have luck reaching out to trustees privately. Despite the lack of response or action, she said using the public comments time was worth it.
“The people in the audience heard me. So, I think it made a difference in that aspect of it,” Dyer said.
The board’s decision was not universally panned. Finney County Commissioner Lon Pishny has used the public comments portion of several local entities, using the time to break down aspects of policy governance to the GCCC board last year. Public comments should not be suspended forever and any governing body benefits from constructive comments, he said, but the comments at the GCCC board meetings were sometimes repetitive or redundant.
“It seemed like I was at a board meeting, I would hear comments about some of the issues that people felt were happening at the college, I’d miss a month or two, I’d come back, and the same comments were being made at (that) board meeting,” Pishny said.
GCCC Student Government Association President Clara Jackson said she likes the board and what they’ve done for the college but is disappointed that they suspended public comment.
The college needs a “cooling off stage” without a space for public comments, Wasinger said. The platform will return in the future, at a “right time” down the road, but there is no set date as to when, he said. Then, maybe the board can instead look into decorum rules or restrictions instead of a full suspension, he said. In the meantime, the suspension is a call for civility.
“There’s obviously been some heated debate, and that’s not necessarily a problem. I understand there’s emotions and things of that nature that go about this, but nobody deserves to be attacked. Nobody deserves to be pointed out, again, as a few of our board members have been pointed out ... As much as I would like to say we can act civilized and be adults about it, that hasn’t been the case lately...” Wasinger said.
Williams agrees — everyone at the meetings should act professionally. But to Lewis, the First Amendment exists to protect “contentious, sometimes critical and even sometimes “uncivil” debate.
“It’s the contentious comments that are most in need of protection from the First Amendment,” he said.