In a 4-2 vote, the Garden City Community College Board of Trustees suspended the public comments section of their meetings indefinitely Tuesday, arguing, among other points, that the time was being used for public attacks.
Newly named Board Chair Blake Wasinger opened the discussion ahead of the Tuesday meeting’s public comments section, saying he had spoken to other board members and GCCC Interim President Ryan Ruda about the motion.
The action was not meant to “limit” public comment at all, Wasinger said. Board members would still be available through their GCCC email accounts and in person and could still address community members’ questions or concerns. Public comments sections at meetings were “a privilege” and suspending them would make meetings “effective,” he said.
The board ultimately approved a motion to cancel the public comments section Tuesday and at all future meetings until further notice. Wasinger and Trustees Jeff Crist, Terri Worf and Merilyn Douglass voted in favor and Trustees Steve Martinez and Leonard Hitz voted against the motion.
The conversation comes almost a year after faculty members, staff members, students and community members began regularly using the public comments section of trustees’ meetings to speak out about concerns of unaddressed sexual harassment by former GCCC Cheer Coach Brice Knapp, a toxic work environment and retaliatory behavior by former GCCC President Herbert Swender, trustees’ inaccessibility, legal issues and investigations at the college, among other issues.
Since April 2018, students, staff, lawyers and community members have spoken at the public comments section at almost every trustees meeting. Emotional and heated moments were not uncommon.
Martinez and Hitz said they opposed the motion. Trustees are elected officials and answer to the people, Martinez said, and he did not believe it was “ever right” to take away the public’s voice.
“We may not like what they have to say sometimes, but I still think we still owe them that time to share their thoughts,” Martinez said.
Hitz told the board to “not forget who owns us,” but also addressed the crowd, asking them to express their concerns without being “combative or confrontational.” Regardless, he said he did not think the section should be taken away.
Alternatively, Worf and Douglass showed support for the motion. The public comments section had changed, Douglass said, becoming an outlet for “personal attacks” instead of focusing on the college.
It was very important to listen to constituents and maintain an open dialogue, Worf said, but a forum for “public screaming and yelling so they could get in the press” did not belong at board meetings. The session was supposed to be productive, not a space for people to “get attention,” she said.
She said she checked her GCCC email often and was happy to give her phone number to anyone who wanted it.
“The comments section was never meant to air particular complaints or praise of anything … It’s really deteriorated,” Worf said.
Crist did not comment during board discussion.
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