A surprising issue was raised at the Geauga Park District board session on Monday, easing the ban on public comments during meetings.
The board eliminated the public comment portion at meetings in July of 2016 when Jackie Dottore, Bill Gertz and Len Barker were board members.
This week, park board Vice President Pat Preston addressed the issue of changing restrictions now in place.
Mr. Preston explained that the park board has a process where questions and concerns are submitted via email to Executive Director John Oros. Mr. Preston talked about continuing that process but also having those questions sent to park board members so they can call residents for more information or clarification. Then, the question would be addressed in an open session with each presenter given the chance to ask two follow-up questions.
The motion was tabled by a 2-2 vote with members Mr. Preston and Dennis Ibold voting in favor and Mario Innocenzi and Howard Bates voting against.
Although we would prefer a public comment segment be added to all park board meetings with no pre-submission requirement, this proposal is a step in the right direction.
The ban on public comments at Geauga Park District board meetings began five years ago when Mr. Oros asked the board to strike from the agenda the time for citizens to ask questions. Mr. Gertz said at that time that public comments served no purpose and had been abused.
Comments from residents should always to heard.
Over the last five years, residents asked for the ban to be relaxed, including in 2018 when a citizen requested a few minutes of discussion be added to a meeting. Andrej Lah, who was park board president at the time, said the no-comment practice would continue. He doubled down on the policy of having questions from residents submitted in writing to give park officials time to research and generate an answer.
This process, still in place, fails to give taxpayers the opportunity to comment on an agenda item or other topic being addressed in real time. The park district is supported by tax dollars. The process also allows park officials to ignore questions they don’t like.
Despite the ban on comments, a loyal group of citizens has continued to attend park board meetings. Some residents have said they received no response to emailed questions.
The Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office has stated that public comment portions of meetings are not legally required.
The park district’s current policy is the exception, not the rule. Most public boards have a comment period built into their meeting agendas with rules, such as time limits, to ensure order is maintained.
Can you imagine a health board or school board today eliminating comment periods when residents want to air views on masks or curriculum?
The next Geauga Park District Board meeting is Oct. 12. There still is time for residents to contact board members in support of relaxing the ban on verbal, real-time public comments. Better yet, residents should call for park board members to bring back the open comment portion of meetings.
Residents deserve an open forum to voice their concerns.