Public board and council meetings must be orderly and efficient, but that still leaves plenty of scope for public participation.
On Monday, trustees of the Greater Victoria P On School District voted down a motion to allow question-and-answer sessions at regular board meetings, referring the issue to staff for further research, with a report to come to the board in November.
The research shouldn't be onerous - almost every elected body in the region allows time for public questions at regular meetings. School boards all over the province have question periods. Just do it.
That doesn't mean throwing the board meeting wide open. Trustees and staff have to be able to conduct meetings according to proper rules of order, but there is room for public input and questions.
This isn't to imply the school board is rejecting interaction with the public. As is the case with all elected bodies, delegations and individuals can apply to be put on the agenda. That gives the trustees and staff a heads-up about a presentation, enabling them to deal with it more effectively. Furthermore, committee meetings are open to the public, and questions and comments from the public are allowed at these meetings, but full agendas can restrict the discussion.
Union officials and a parents' representative have nonvoting seats at the board table and can take part in the proceedings. The board certainly isn't operating in secret, nor is it aloof from the taxpayers.
But the more public participation, the better. Democracy's greatest enemy is not threats from without, but apathy from within. Canada suffers from a decline in voting turnouts and a decrease in the number of people active in public issues. Everything possible should be done to encourage more people to take part in the democratic process.
Setting aside a time for questions and comments is not new nor is it unusual. A quick look at municipal websites shows that Victoria, Esquimalt, Oak Bay and Highlands set aside time for public questions and comments, as do school boards in Saanich and Vancouver.
It's a privilege that necessarily comes with restrictions and conditions. Victoria's city council, for example, asks that questions and comments be restricted to two minutes, and that they concern items on the agenda. For propriety and efficiency, comments are not allowed on subjects that are or have been the topic of public hearings.
Those commenting should not abuse the privilege by using the time for questions as an opportunity to get on a soapbox or further a cause. (Never mind what you see during Parliament's Question Period - we on Vancouver Island know better how to behave.) The chair of the meeting should always be in charge and should conduct the meeting with a firm hand, ruling out of order those who violate the accepted rules of conduct.
While public input is allowed at committee meetings, the regular board meeting is when the final vote is taken. It's an opportunity to communicate with the full board. It's a time when the input really counts.
It would not be much of a risk for the school board to include opportunities for questions and comments in regular meetings, and the rewards would include more transparency and a greater sense of public ownership.
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