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posted: 3/6/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Limiting discussion not the way to control public meetings

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Last week, the Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 board decided it would put suggested time limits on items up for discussion at board meetings. Board President David Page said this is intended to make meetings move faster, given they can go on for three hours or more.

As Page explained it, if the majority of board members wants to extend a discussion they can. He also remarked the time limits would keep board members from "getting on a soapbox."

By itself, this would not be a big deal as long as an important discussion is not cut off prematurely, or if members with minority opinions are not left on the other side of the time limit. But we are uncomfortable with the precedent the limits set for other boards, and we fear they're another sign District 25's board is acting less like an elected entity and more like a corporate one.

The District 25 board already has rejected calls to post video of its meetings online, claiming it's too expensive -- when practically all they really need is a smartphone and a tripod. Moreover, we're talking about board members who, save one, defer to Page to speak for them on nearly every issue outside the board room. Given that level of loyalty to the collective, there's a real chance minority opinions will die unheard if a majority wants to hijack the time spent on a given topic.

Page argues that a public meeting isn't the place for board members to "do their homework" and ask questions that they could have learned the answers to by reading their packets. Well, of course, homework -- that is, background research to understand a proposal -- should be done at home, but a public meeting still is the perfect place for a complicated issue, or one with several sides, to be discussed and shaken out.

On controversial matters, a board that constantly "speaks as one" is abdicating its responsibility to voters who expect members to bring their best individual gifts to the table.

All public bodies have a duty to fully consider issues in public and to give elected members the opportunity to openly represent the views that got them elected and for which voters should hold them accountable. Because of that, democracy can be messy and frustratingly slow. People who sit on elected boards rarely are adequately appreciated for the huge amount of time they put into these mostly volunteer gigs. To be sure, boards need policies and procedures that prevent them from being hijacked by special interests, and their meetings shouldn't have to last all night.

But great ideas can come from minority opinions, and elected leaders must stifle the urge to sacrifice important discussion in the interests of time or convenience. If District 25 truly is concerned about too many long discussions bloating its meetings, it would do better to rescind this policy and add some additional sessions to the schedule so board members will have time to fully examine issues and express themselves.

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