Wilson school board to rewrite public comment policy

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The Wilson County Board of Education plans to redraft its policy on how the public can address the board.

Six months ago, on May 21, the board made policy changes that included a requirement for potential public input speakers to sign up by noon on the Friday before the Monday evening meeting.

Board member Beverly Boyette had requested a discussion on the policy to be placed on the agenda for this past Monday’s board meeting.

“I would like for us to look at this policy again and specifically in the portion 1326.5 when it says any person who desires to appear before the board may sign up to do so by noon no later than the last school work day prior to the board meeting,” Boyette said. “My suggestion would be that we change that so that sign-up would be 30 minutes before the board meeting begins as it was prior to that.”

Boyette said she’d like for the board to continue allowing people to sign up via email and suggested that deadline be set at noon the day of the board meeting.

Boyette also suggested removing the requirement of including “a brief explanation of the nature of the item with background information sufficient for the superintendent to provide a reasonable understanding of the matter to members of the board.” She said that disclosure should be a voluntary option.

“The reasons for the change are the input that we have received from the community that requiring sign up on a Friday is not very conducive to getting input since it is nearly three days since our board meets on Monday,” Boyette said. “Similar boards also, such as our county commissioners, and other boards that meet, don’t require that length of time to sign up to speak and so if a person were to move into the community and wanted to address (the board), unless they studied our policy, they would not know that that was a requirement, so I think it is friendlier to our citizens.”

Board member Velma Barnes said she looked at eight boards across the state to gauge their public comment policies.

“The majority of them do have the three-minute time limit for individuals to be able to speak,” Barnes said.“We are not in a glass bubble.”

Barnes supported Boyette’s proposed sign-up changes.

“If you cut it to the facts, you can do most anything in three minutes,” said board member Gary Farmer.

Farmer said he received 47 phone calls, text messages and other communications just from one recent issue the board considered.

“We get stopped at church. We get stopped in the supermarket. We get stopped at ball games,” Farmer said. “It’s not because we don’t want to listen. We do and we do, and that’s our job. It is our job and we want to do it, but we also have to have some rules. If you don’t, you’ve got anarchy and we don’t want that. We want to have decorum and we want to have protocol. So yes, I hope we can look at this, and I hope we can match what we need to do with Wilson County and the people and what they want us to do.”

Board member Debora Powell said hearing public input is always very important.

“We are all here because of public input,” Powell said. “We are nominated in our districts, so public input is something that I hold very highly and I wouldn’t want the public to think that we are trying to stifle them or keep them from being able to come here and give their opinion, because that is very important. It helps us be as one and to unify.”

Powell also supported Boyette’s suggested changes, as did board members Henry Mercer and Robin Flinn.

“While there has been a lot of discussion about the sign-up time and the three minutes, there has not been a lot of mention about the fact that the door was opened in this policy that a person could speak more clearly about by naming people and expressing things the previous policy did not allow, so while some people had the opinion that we were being more restrictive, we have actually opened the door for some more information to be provided in their comments,” Mercer said.

“I agree with Mr. Mercer that when we first brought up this policy, it was to open it up more and it has seemingly closed it off at least to the public and certainly that was not our intention, and if we can go back and correct it, that’s the right thing to do,” Flinn said.

Chairwoman Christine Fitch, the longest-serving board member at 29 years, weighed in.

“When I came on this board, there was no opportunity for the public to address the board, period. It was not until around 1995 or 1996 that the public was given that opportunity,” Fitch said.“Three minutes is plenty if you have organized your thoughts and you are not going to stand and just ramble and run on.”

Fitch said the policy change “was never intended to thwart the public’s ability to address the board.”

The change was initiated so board policy would be in compliance with First Amendment case law. Attorneys said the prior policy that banned discussion of any personnel matters would likely be found unconstitutional as a form of content-based discrimination.

“We wanted to try to be more on top of what the legal rulings have been, so we did act and yes, it was that we are revising and we can go back and review and that is what we are doing at this time,” Fitch said. “So where the misconception was that we were trying to shut the public out, that has not been the case.”

Fitch said the board’s policy precludes responding immediately to public comments made during the meeting.

“It is not our place to have a back and forth because I have seen and board members have heard as to how sometimes that gets out of hand,” Fitch said. “We are not here for a free-for-all. We are here to hear the comments and because we do not respond at the time the comments are made, it is not that the comments have not been heard or that they have fallen on deaf ears.”

Fitch asked the administration and the board attorney to re-craft the policy and bring back a new version reflecting Boyette’s suggestions for discussion at the Dec. 5 meeting.