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Freer speech

Area residents may not realize this, but their ability to speak during a city council or school board meeting is not guaranteed. The state’s open meetings law “does not require a governmental body to allow members of the public to speak or actively participate in the body’s meeting,” according to the attorney general’s compliance guide. Some specific matters do require public hearings, but in the case of most meetings, it’s up to each council or board to decide whether it will allow direct citizen participation.

We should all be thankful that every unit of government in the area includes a public comment section toward the top of their agendas. If that ever went away, you’d be hearing from us — loudly and clearly — in this editorial space. We’d also expect the public to strongly object to any effort to eliminate opportunities for speaking directly to elected officials at a public meeting.

Still, not all governing bodies in this area offer a completely free forum for citizens to speak about whatever topic they choose. A few of them limit comments to items on the agenda, so if a constituent wants to bring up a topic that isn’t listed, they’re out of luck. Instead, they are usually told to contact members of the board individually and see if they can either resolve the issue outside of a meeting or have the topic placed on a future agenda.

Such restrictions can make it seem like members of the public are being preemptively muzzled. If someone has a complaint about their water bills being too high or a concern about what their child is being taught in school, they should be able to raise that in a public setting — in front of elected officials and other members of the public. Otherwise, their opinions may never be fully publicized, and the opportunity for public dialog will be lost.

Of course, government bodies need to be careful about letting public comments morph into fullfl edged deliberations about an issue that is not on the agenda. The open meetings compliance guide says it’s “advisable to limit the discussion of that subject” until it can be listed on future agenda. In these cases, it is up to the person running the meeting, usually the mayor or board president, to cut off any conversations before they undermine the public’s right to know what is being discussed.

This type of compromise allows people to speak their minds while also giving officials discretion to rein in any wayward conversations. A lot of simple questions can be answered this way, not to mention misconceptions on the part of citizens that may need to be corrected. Having these discussions in public can help strike down untrue rumors while letting citizens know that they are being heard.

Abbotsford’s city council, which used to allow public comments on any topic, started limiting comments to those “pertaining to the agenda” at the end of 2018. Recently, though, a couple of council members have questioned this restriction, including Ald. Dennis Kramer, who says citizens may feel like they’re being told to “go away” if they try to bring up a non-agenda top. City administrator Dan Grady and a couple other council members said residents should really be talking directly to their ward representatives, who can then get topics on an agenda for full discussion.

This may work in some situations, but not all. It’s time for Abbotsford to reopen the public comment period to all topics, especially when certain issues are simmering and may boil over. Here’s another good reason: it levels the playing field between members of the public and city officials. Right now, both the mayor and the city administrator are free to talk about whatever they want during their own comment periods, and council members often turn a review of monthly bills into detailed discussions of certain policies or procedures.

We don’t necessarily want to put an end to all of these free-flowing conversations, but we believe citizens should also have some of the same leeway. It’s a delicate balance, but we say error on the side of open public dialog.

The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien