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Keeping it civil

IOWA CITY– Public participation and community involvement in government is an essential part of the democratic process and local politics. But comments by one speaker at Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) meetings have been called into question by the school board.
ICCSD holds a place on the agenda for “Community Comments,” time set aside for anyone from the area to speak for a short amount of time about the schools. Participants must sign a form and request an address with the board.
Former ICCSD board candidate Phil Hemingway is a public commentary regular at the microphone.
Recently, some on the board have labeled Hemingway’s comments “personal attacks” and openly questioned the district’s liability for the public comments. The meetings are cablecast live from the board chambers to Iowa City and Coralville.
Hemingway said he became a citizen watchdog after the district’s handling of the resignation of City High principal Mark Hansen, over two years ago.
He said one former school board member wanted to “stifle” him, and the board tried to change the rules of citizen participation.
A new board has him cautiously hopeful but he said, “(past boards have) lacked the intellectual curiosity, (and developed a) code of silence.”
The board is not required to respond during meetings but can ask for clarifications or details from the speakers.
Hemingway’s concerns are often focused on budget items, but he said, “I have no fear to name the people responsible for problems in district.”
Dropping those names is what has singled him out with motions from board members to cut off Hemingway and end what they call personal attacks.
“It’s only a liability issue if it’s false,” Hemingway said.
At the Jan. 17 meeting, Hemingway said, “I put two and a half years into this,” and asked Board President Marla Swesey for “the respect of a little bit of time.”
Community comments can be very helpful when addressing school departments or issues, Swesey said in an email to the Leader.
“The ICCSD is very fortunate to have such an interested and committed community. The Board expects the community comment time to be a productive and respectful way for community members to voice their concerns about current school district issues to assist the board in making decisions that help our district be the best place possible to educate the students of this community,” Swesey wrote.
Many school boards do provide opportunity for public comment from parents and residents as a matter of policy and procedure, though they are not legally required to do so, according to Mary Gannon, attorney for the Iowa Association of School Boards. College Community School District board meetings have a portion of the agenda set aside for citizen comments, Clear Creek Amana Community School District regularly posts an agenda item called “Communications,” and the Solon Community School District allows members of the public to request an audience with the board ahead of scheduled meetings, or to sign up at the beginning of each meeting for an opportunity to speak.
Most boards impose a time limit on speakers, and might also restrict the number of participants.
At a January meeting of the ICCSD board, Hemingway said the recently-released Synesi report– a review of the schools’ business operations– validated his views that there are few formal bids for goods and services by the schools and a lack of competitive selection for design/engineering/construction contracts and services, but he wasn’t very hopeful for implementation of his free advice.
“The board has a tendency to only pay people to get advice,” he said.
The report, an enclosure in the Jan. 17 board minutes, questioned whether ICCSD was “truly receiving competitive pricing or the most qualified service providers in all instances. Furthermore, there appears to be little effort to bring new service providers to the district to enhance competition and drive costs down.”
The lack of competitive bids has rankled Hemingway since he became aware of it. At the Feb. 7 meeting, Hemingway said he will speak out again on the schools’ grounds maintenance contract which has been serviced by a Coralville company, Quality Care, since the late 1980s.
He’s asked the board to expand the bidding pool for the three-year service contract that has a renewal clause for additional years. He’s also suggested that the grounds contract be divided into pieces to enable local and smaller bidders a chance at the job.
Hemingway said he’ll continue to give the board what he considers free advice, but he won’t give the board the one thing he thinks they really want.
“Their philosophy is ‘If you ignore people long enough they’ll stop coming,” Hemingway said.
He won’t stop coming and he won’t be ignored.
Hemingway, whose daughter attends City High, owns an auto repair shop in Iowa City.
Swesey indicated she expects the ICCSD board to continue the public input forums, as long as they continue to prove useful.
“When community comments address concerns about district departments or issues and are done so in a timely manner, the information given can be very helpful.  It is the School Board’s desire to continue to have community comment as part of future agendas as long as the emphasis on ‘productive’ and ‘respectful’ are adhered to by all participants,” Swesey wrote.