Public comment at meetings best for all

By: 

Public bodies, such as school boards, town councils and county councils, have important responsibilities to uphold. They set policy, create budgets for the use of taxpayer dollars and hire employees.

However, that doesn’t mean the public has no say in what happens. After all, public officials are elected by the folks they serve. It is only fair that the public have a chance to voice their opinion. An open line of communication between the public and the folks who represent them on public bodies is the best way to keep people informed.

One method is to allow for public comment at the meetings.

If you look on the agenda - or the written outline of what will be discussed - of a meeting for a local public body, you will see some form of invitation to the public to speak. However, the guidelines for public participation vary.

Boards of two local school districts are currently considering changes to their public participation policies.

The Williston District 29 School Board is considering whether to update their policy regarding the matter. We believe it is time for an update as the current policy dissuades public participation.

While the public used to be able to sign in to speak immediately prior to the District 29 meetings, this was changed a few years ago. Members of the public now have to fill out a form at least three business days before a regular meeting in order to give the district written notice of their intent to speak along with the topic they wish to speak about.

This is simply unfair and goes against the very principle and intent of public participation.

Three days usually prohibits the public from knowing what is on the agenda for the meeting so they can know what will be discussed and possibly voted on. Requiring people to sign up days before a meeting can also hinder many people from speaking.

D29 Superintendent Dr. Missoura Ashe researched the public participation policies for some other school districts, which produced varying results. Policies of other districts ranged from requiring notice of seven business days before a meeting to signing up on a sheet of paper the night of a meeting.

District 29 board members discussed the issue recently, but tabled any action so they could ponder the best option.

We applaud Dr. Ashe for bringing this matter to the board’s attention and looking at improving the policy. We encourage the Williston District 29 School Board to revise their policy so the public can sign in as they enter the board room prior to the meeting starting. This is the method Barnwell County’s other two public school districts utilize, which we believe is the fairest.

However, the Barnwell District 19 (Blackville-Hilda Public Schools) School Board is also considering a change, although we do not consider it to be for the better.

During their August 16 board meeting, the Blackville-Hilda board approved the first reading revising their public participation policy. Their current policy allows members of the public to sign up for public comment immediately prior to the meeting; however, the proposed change would require requests to speak be made five days in advance of a regular meeting.

District 19’s current policy could use revising because it is vague in some aspects. However, we believe this proposed change is not the best decision.

We hope these two school boards will strongly consider what is in the best interest of the public by voting to promote public participation. Allow the public to sign in immediately before a meeting in order to speak during the allotted public participation time.

As far as other aspects of these policies, we currently do not have an issue.

We suggest setting guidelines and time limits. It is fair to give people three minutes to speak as individuals or 10 minutes when representing a group. It’s also acceptable for public bodies not to respond to what was said during public comments, which has been the standard practice for years. Barnwell County Council and several municipalities invite comments in this manner and it works well. If it is a matter a council wants to discuss, they usually place it on the agenda for the next meeting.

We strongly suggest the District 19 board reconsider their proposed policy before giving it second reading.

Do not shut out the very people who elected you.

It is also expected that people who take advantage of their right to speak at meetings do so in a calm and civil manner. Meetings can get quite lengthy so a suscinct, to-the-point approach is best.

Sadly, most meetings of public bodies in Barnwell County have no members of the public sign up to voice their support or concerns. Quite often it is just the media in the audience.

It seems people do not get concerned and attend meetings until there is a controversy or issue that they connect with personally.

Boards, councils and commissions use our money and make decisions that impact us. That’s why we encourage residents to be involved. Show public officials you care about what happens.

We ask that those who govern be willing to listen to the governed, even at a moment’s notice.

Allow public comment without a waiting period.