Editorial: The Public’s Business; Cornish Should Welcome Discussion

It’s not all that often that communities debate such fundamental questions of governing as the purpose of meetings held by public bodies. Cornish finds itself in just such a position at present.

As staff writer Maggie Cassidy reported earlier this week, the Cornish School Board has been weighing revisions to its policy governing public participation at board meetings since April. That such a review was needed could be inferred from a chaotic meeting that took place in late May, when members of the public were denied an opportunity to discuss a vulgar Facebook posting made by a board member. They reacted with outrage that manifested itself in a variety of unruly behavior that the chairman was unable to quell.

Regrettably, the revised policy the board is considering is unlikely to alleviate the tensions that arose from that unhappy experience. It is peremptory in tone and restrictive in effect. According to Superintendent of Schools Middleton McGoodwin, it is based on model language provided by the New Hampshire School Boards Association. If so, the association is doing its members no favors.

For example, the policy currently in place declares that the board encourages residents to attend its meetings “so that they may become better acquainted with the operation and programs of the schools and so that the board may have opportunity to hear the wishes and ideas of the public.” In the revised version, the sentence ends after “schools.” The effect is to eliminate the idea that the public has anything to contribute to the board’s decision-making or has a right to make its wishes known. The inference is that the public should take the opportunity to inform itself about the issues at hand and then shut up.

This is not to suggest that the current policy could not benefit from improvement in a couple of important respects. It specifies that the board will hear no complaint in public session regarding “any person connected with the school system.” Presumably this is intended to protect school employees and volunteers, but could be construed to apply to board members themselves. In the same vein, the policy specifies that while questions may be directed to board members individually, no answers will be forthcoming until the entire board has considered them.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the democratic process that is, unfortunately, widely shared among public bodies in New Hampshire and Vermont. Board members are elected as individuals and are obliged to answer their constituents questions about official business as individuals, in public as well as in private. The board as a whole cannot and should not answer for individual members, just as individual members do not speak for the whole board.

In any case, the ever-willing-to-help Peter Burling, former state senator and town moderator, has drafted an alternative revision of the policy. It is somewhat long-winded but represents a distinct improvement in several respects from the board’s. The chief one is in tone, which is distinctly more welcoming to public participation.

For example, the board’s version is prefaced by the statement that, “The primary purpose of School Board meetings is to conduct the business of the board as it relates to school policies, programs and operations.” Burling’s version notes that successful management of the school district’s affairs is assured when “members of the public are present at and participate in School Board meetings,” so that board members can hear their concerns and the public can inform itself.

This strikes about the right balance. The board has work to do. But democracy is by its very nature an untidy affair, and sometimes it delays the orderly and efficient transaction of governmental business. Efficiency isn’t everything. Many authoritarian regimes are efficient, but nobody we know wants to be governed by one. The New England tradition of self-government is properly rooted in the belief that public participation produces better government, even if it sometimes annoys elected representatives, or interferes with the swift completion of their business.