Removal of period for public comment not political or permanent, chair says

Kienstra regrets some upset about board agenda change

By Kari Williams

Removing a period for public comment from last week’s Grantwood Village Board of Trustees agenda was not political or permanent, according to board Chairwoman Cathy Forand.

“It’s not a campaign. It’s not political. We were just trying to run the village business,” Forand told the Call.

For roughly 10 years, board agendas have included a period for public comment, listed as villagers’ questions and/or comments. However, the board’s March 20 agenda stated, “Trustees will be available for questions and comments after the meeting. Residents can call or email the trustees with any questions.”

Board Treasurer Mark Kienstra said after talking with Village Attorney Rich Magee, he learned village ordinances do not provide a public comment period under “Order of Business” for meeting agendas. The ordinances do state residents and guests should be recognized.

“I found out about the order of business in the ordinance a couple of days before the meeting and was stunned because our ordinances are about 384 pages long, (and) I know most of them,” he said. “I have read this section before, and it just didn’t connect with me.”

Village officials, according to Kienstra, did not have enough time to craft a new ordinance before the meeting that would allow for public comment.

“What we have to do, between now and the next meeting, is craft something, and that’s why we are scrambling to look at the other governmental organizations that are so effective,” Kienstra said.

Trustees, according to Kienstra, have reviewed how St. Louis County and the Lindbergh Schools Board of Education handle public comment.

“It’s not my version of what needs to be done, or another resident’s version of what needs to be done,” he said. “We want to take a model that another government institution uses that is already proven effective.”

At County Council meetings, residents who wish to speak fill out a card before meetings begin and are called upon during the “public forum” agenda item.

Lindbergh Schools Board of Education public comment is near the beginning of the meeting and does not require speakers to sign up beforehand.

Trustees want to encourage dialogue, according to Kienstra, who believes future policy likely will be similar to St. Louis County or Lindbergh Schools Board of Education procedures.

“I haven’t seen yet another municipal example where there’s back and forth dialogue,” Kienstra said. “So, if people want more back and forth dialogue, we’ll have to do that before or after the meeting …”

Kienstra also said the village’s monthly meeting is only one place to get answer to questions concerning the village — about 95 percent of questions are asked outside of meetings.

“If we get 60 or 70 phone calls a month and a handful of emails, we might then get two business-related questions at the meeting,” he said.

While one resident — Pam Wendl — contacted Forand before the meeting about the public comment issue, the chairwoman said if more people called her with concern, she would have considered mentioning it during the meeting.

“If more people had been calling me about it, I maybe would have said, ‘Hey, we took it off because I didn’t want to make this a campaign stump tonight for either side,'” she said. “Because it’s not fair. It’s not what the meeting is for. It’s for us to conduct our business, and if they had a legitimate question, it wouldn’t have mattered when they asked it.”

Kienstra said he regrets that some residents are upset about the change in the board agenda.

“I’d like very much for the residents not to be upset,” he said, “and we will certainly look forward in the future to not only complying with the law and crafting a new policy, but to addressing as best we can the interest of all the residents who want to have opportunities for public input.”

Forand said she does not feel removing public comment is an issue because it was a one-time change, and trustees are considering how to address the situation.

Forand’s ideas include: moving comment to the bottom of the agenda, placing time limits on comment and having residents email questions prior to meetings so there is time to research, if necessary.

“I’m just thinking about all ways to handle it,” Forand said.

After the meeting, Forand said a couple residents contacted her with positive comments, but she received no negative comments.