The following article originally appeared on Chagrin Valley Today, the website of the Chagrin Valley Times and Geauga Times Courier. Our thanks to the Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley Times
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Krista S. Kano
Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners may soon be answering pre-submitted public questions at their monthly meetings.
During a Tuesday meeting, Executive Director John Oros read a memo stating, “Since our last meeting, (newly elected) Board President Andrej Lah and I had a discussion regarding the possibility of the Board of Park Commissioners receiving questions in writing from the public and generating answers. Should we move forward, we propose questions be submitted in writing prior to meetings in order to give the board adequate time to prepare answers. In order to control the business of the meetings, this is not a time for public input during the meeting, rather a time for the board to answer the questions they received prior to the meeting. The questions would be answered during a pre-determined amount of time during commissioners’ time, as listed on the monthly agenda.”
The public comment portion of the board meetings was eliminated in July 2016 by the three park commissioners at the time, Jackie Dottore (current vice president of the board), Bill Gertz (who fulfilled his term on the board and was replaced by Mr. Lah in January of 2017) and Len Barker (who recently resigned from the position and was replaced by Arms Trucking owner Howard Bates in December of 2017).
“I wasn’t here when the policy changes occurred. I do understand that one of the reasons it got to this point is because it became antagonistic. It was not a pleasant experience for anyone involved,” Mr. Lah said.
“Since this is one of the first things (Mr. Lah)’s done as president, I applaud him for doing that. I think it is important they start to do their duty as a public board,” Kathy Hanratty, president of the grassroots group, Protect Geauga Parks, said after the meeting. The group has been critical of the park board’s no public comment policy.
Mrs. Dottore raised concerns about the process, specifically how the board would determine which questions are answered, how many questions would be answered at each meeting and the deadline for submitting questions.
“I want to make sure we’re thorough and fair,” Mrs. Dottore said. “I don’t want someone coming in and saying, ‘you’re picking and choosing ones you want to read because it’s positive.’”
Mrs. Dottore continued that when she served on a local school board, they made sure that the public comment would only be allowed for topics relevant to the day’s agenda.
Mr. Bates suggested that they limit the questions to two to three people because, “You don’t want 50 people and to be here all day. Some of the boards I’ve been on in the past, you get on the board agenda so we can do our due diligence and the conversation is a little shorter.”
Mr. Oros explained that the current process for handling public input, questions and complaints is via email or from the front desk staff and that “we try to generate answers quickly.”
“I have concerns with not having a policy or procedure,” Mrs. Dottore said. “I fear (that they’ll say) we’re only choosing this topic because that’s the one you want to read, and you’re not choosing this one because it makes you uncomfortable.”
Mr. Lah suggested that they number each question as it comes in through the email, and then choose a number out of a hat to randomly determine which questions are answered at the meetings.
Mrs. Dottore also raised a concern about questions that are more appropriate as a public information request, rather than those that should be answered by the board. “There should be some acknowledgement that we advise that this is a public records request or let you know it may be chosen (to be discussed),” she said.
“Thank you for all those questions,” Mr. Lah said, addressing Mrs. Dottore. “It sounds so easy when you think of it, but you’re right. Some things we need to be concerned about going forward.”
Mr. Lah suggested that the deadline to submit questions be the Monday the week prior to the meeting so that the board can conduct research and compile information, and take two to three questions with 5 minutes per response.
Mr. Oros stated that he and board Secretary Sheryl Hatridge would draft a list of guidelines, which will be sent to commissioners for review prior to being posted on the parks’ website.
Mrs. Hanratty also said that the board should always be answering questions from the public. “They’re a public board. This shouldn’t be something new and different. It is somewhat hopeful that they have given this some thought and are considering opening the meeting to considering people’s questions, but I see that as their duty, not some benefit that they’re giving us.”