Democracy is alive and well – at least in one small town in the Hill Country of Texas.
Earlier this week I found myself visiting a friend in Seguin, Texas, a small town tipping the scales north of 25,000 residents. Beautiful Town Square, picturesque Live Oak trees, and a population fired up like nest of angry hornets at the local school board over a proposed purchase of a radio station.
Angry might be an understatement for what I witnessed.
“The meeting is at noon if you’d like to go,” said my friend.
He told me about how the local school board was proposing spending nearly a half-million dollars purchasing a radio business.
“What does this have to do with advancing the education of the students? What about books?” I said.
We both looked at each other knowing there was no good answer.
A couple hours later we arrived a converted shopping mall. The first thing I noticed was a police car at the entrance and people, young and old, pouring into the building. My friend mentioned the school board had posted the minimally required notice of the meeting and the newspaper told the community. Considering the day and time, a Thursday at noon, one could see the school board was not making it easy for the community to attend.
But people were angry – and angry people in a big a way.
As the meeting time approached, hundreds of people filled the room to beyond capacity. Men stood offering their chairs to women and the elderly. Students with homemade protest signs lined the walls while others waited outside in the hallway hoping to hear what the board had to say.
Again, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a local population so angry.
The meeting came to order as if the crowd did not exist. Testimony began between members, each reading into the record their thoughts. Someone in the crowd made an unsolicited reply – and it was then I learned the board had made the rule the public would not be allowed to speak or participate. I was stunned. The attorney for the board took to the microphone and warned anyone else who spoke would be removed.
A few moments later, following a remark from another board member saying he hadn’t heard too much opposition to the proposal, brought laughter from the crowd. The board then announced the next interruption would result in the police clearing the entire room.
I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such a tone-deaf publicly elected body in my life.
One mother, holding her two-year old son, leaned over to me and said, “this feels like a scene from the movie The Music Man, doesn’t it?”
Testimony revealed the business had lost nearly $150,000 in the past two years and the board tried to promote the education and career opportunities of operating a radio station for the students. While the board continued to try and sell the concept, the people became increasingly upset.
Unable – or lacking the courage – to reach a public decision, the board retreated into executive session, a protected format for narrow and legally specified reasons. The crowd read the move behind closed doors as hiding from the public.
In the end, the board backed off from voting in public to move forward with the purchase – but rather continue to explore.
But what I witnessed, a mass of independently energized voting public attending a meeting intentionally scheduled to keep attendance down, will forever stay with me. And all I can say is God help those elected officials if they ever need to come to the voters for help.