Our view: ‘New business’ ploy at meetings must be stopped

Dallas High School. (Times Leader File Photo) -

Seriously, this has to stop.

There is good reason to have a “new business” part of any government meeting. Things can happen fast, and people serving on most municipal councils and school boards are volunteers. School board members do it without pay. They are typically busy with their regular lives.

So it’s easy to understand that ideas for new action can emerge after an agenda has been drawn up, printed and distributed.

But area government bodies in general, and school boards in particular, seem to have developed a penchant for seeking votes on big ideas under “new business” that should have been proposed and debated right from the start of the meeting. This is grating because the public comment section of the meeting — indeed, almost the entire meeting — is over when a board opens the table for “new business.”

The latest example occurred Monday at the Dallas School Board monthly meeting, when Board member Patrick Musto decided to move for the addition of three school resource officers. A worthy topic for debate, clearly. Which is exactly why it should not be sprung at the end of a meeting.

The move could add $180,000 in salary to the district budget. Benefits, presumably, would increase that outlay dramatically. And it’s an ongoing cost. That’s a lot of money in any district; It’s stunning in Dallas, where the teacher union and school board have been locked in often-acrimonious contract talks for years, with the board repeatedly insisting it can’t afford what teachers are seeking.

But the most amazing example of this habit for raising big issues in the last minute occurred at the Aug. 7 meeting of Wilkes-Barre Area School District, when board member Shawn Walker proposed near the end of the meeting to include GAR Memorial High School in a school consolidation plan that, for several years, had only involved Meyers and Coughlin high schools.

At Dallas, the board rejected Musto’s last minute motion 6-2, so technically no harm, no foul. The idea can be put on next month’s agenda, more research can be done, and it can be brought up in an orderly a fashion with ample time for audience members to offer opinions and ask questions, and for the board to give the pros and cons a solid airing.

At Wilkes-Barre Area, the board approved Walker’s motion 6-3. At a two-hour meeting that involved a boatload of big moves, this one topped them all. It was a move that arguably made a lot of sense, but it came without any real opportunity for debate and zero time for public comment.

Enough. “New Business” should not be a signal for dropping a bombshell into the proceedings. It should be for small things that didn’t get on the agenda, or new things that can’t — or really shouldn’t — wait until the next meeting. At the very least, any new business must include opening the floor to public comment.

Indeed, the state’s Sunshine Law arguably requires exactly that, and citizens willing to pick the fight could legally contend Wilkes-Barre Area violated the law by voting on the new consolidation proposal without opening the floor to public comment.

These are just two examples of a practice that happens too often in too many situations.

It can’t be stressed enough: It has to stop.

Dallas High School. (Times Leader File Photo)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/web1_web1_TTL03xx18DallasHighSchool-2-1.jpgDallas High School. (Times Leader File Photo)