McPherson BOE restricts public comment

Chad Frey
cfrey@thekansan.com
As the McPherson Board of Education has met without public in the room and moved to online meetings, it has restricted public comment n those meetings.

Brian Meek has a bit of an issue with the McPherson Board of Edcation — an ethical issue that has arisen in the past few weeks as the board has navigated meeting in an age of COVID-19, social distancing and limits to gathering sizes advised by coounty, state and federal governments.

“We are not going to let people comment on the board meetings,” Meeks said.

Meeks sees it as an ethical issue — though not a legal one.

“I am really concerned about the lack of transparency,” Meek said. “.. People need to know that the board is avoiding them.”

The Kansas Open Meetings Act does not require governmental boards to seek, ask for or allow for a public comment section during a meeting. The McPherson Board of Education is not breaking any law by not allowing public comment during meetings.

That is reflected in board policy — which states the board can allow for public comment if it desires to do so.

The policy reads: “The president or presiding officer may ask patrons attending if they would like to speak during the open forum. Rules for the public forum will be available from the clerk prior to the board meeting and at the meeting itself. The board president may impose a limit on the time a visitor may address the board. The board president may ask groups with the same interest to appoint a spokesperson to deliver the group’s message. Board members are encouraged to ask clarifying questions.”

The wording is critical.

“Throughout the policy it states that the board "may" take public comments. At this time we are not doing that due to COVID-19 pandemic and necessary response. You will also see that we are not violating KOMA.” wrote Shiloh Vincent, superintendent of McPherson schools to Meek obtained by The Sentinel.

Meek had requested to speak at the next board of education meeting, planning to share concerns from the public that had been shared with the former board of education canidate.

Vincent replied to that request ith a denial to Meek speaking publicly, but did offer to share concerns with board members.

“At this time, we are not receiving (or providing) public comment during the Board meetings. However, if you provide your comments to me by Friday at 12:00PM, I will work to ensure the board receives your comments for their consideration,” Vincent wrote.

That, however, is not enough for Meek — or many others who have commented on social media posts he created on his candidate Facebook page last week.

“The public is not really happy about this. It is not illegal, but something you want to look at,” Meek said. “... It is not a violation of KOMA. They are not doing anything illegal. This goes back to what is good public relations and what is not. I think it turns people off and erodes the trust in the board.”

Meek has been working with the board for months — as after the election he started going to each meeting and streaming those meetings live on Facebook. When COVID-19 led to the closure of buildings and not allowing public into meetings, the board moved to Zoom — and those meetings were viewable but not archived.

They are not required to keep a video archive, if minutes are kept.

“But wouldn’t you want too?” Meek said. “I started cross streaming the feed to my Facebook live feed so there would be an archive.”

Meek told the Sentinel he wants the board to find a way to return to a public comment section of the meetings as a way to build public trust. Not having those designated sections of the meeting, he believes, seeds distrust.

“It does not set the right precedent,” Meek said.

Meek still operates his candidate Facebook page, where he streams meetings. He also told The Sentinel he plans to run for the board again.

“I ran for school board in the last election. I did not make it. What I have been telling people is even though I am not on the board I will do everything I can,” Meek said.

Vincent was contacted via email by The Sentinel for this story. He did not respond.