By Curt Yeomans
The Clayton County Board of Education is backing off of a proposed mandate that community members who address the board cannot talk about issues brought up by someone else, but the push for a separate meeting for public comment is still in the works.
The board was criticized when it announced a plan in May to eliminate public comment from monthly business meetings, in favor of a separate public-comment meeting on the Thursday after monthly work sessions.
A chief criticism from the public about the plan was that the board was trying to restrict what speakers could talk about. The section forbidding speakers from discussing topics which were addressed by previous speakers has been shelved. Julie Lewis, the school system's attorney, said it was dropped for the benefit of the board and the public.
"That was taken out, since we are providing the public with their own meeting to address the board, and board members may want to listen to see how many people are concerned about an issue," Lewis said.
The board is scheduled to vote on the potential changes to its public comment policy during its July 14 business meeting. In addition to eliminating the section forbidding speakers from repeating concerns brought up by other speakers, changes to the proposed public comment meeting include:
· Members of the public "may provide 10 written copies of their concern to the board" rather than being required to do so.
· The amount of time each person will have to speak would be expanded from two to three minutes.
Members of the public must continue to sign up with board's secretary by 4:30 p.m., on the day of the meeting, in order to address the board. The speakers must provide their names, addresses and the topic about which they want to speak. Discussions about personnel issues or confidential student matters are not allowed, and no speaker will be allowed to engage in personal attacks.
Under the board's existing policy, members will not respond to speakers during the public-comment meeting. The long-standing policy does not allow board members to interact with the speakers during the public-comment portions of business meetings.
Speakers also will have to adhere to a new Civility Policy. It prevents board members, school system employees or members of the public from harassing, or threatening each other, while they are on school system property. Anyone who violates the new policy will be informed by school system officials that "he or she may be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature ..."
Larry O'Keeffe, president of the Morrow High School Council, said the board members could respond to public comments if they wanted to, because it is done at meetings of the board of commissioners, but he does not think the board of education will ever follow suit.
O'Keeffe is a frequent participant in public comment at board of education meetings, and he was glad to see the board members "soften their stance" on the public-comment meetings.
"Some of the criteria was burdensome for people who do not have access to modern technology," he said. "Mandating the 10 copies was ridiculous. You can't mandate people do that."
O'Keeffe said there is still cause for concern, though. A board meeting cannot be held without a quorum of five members, and three seats on the board are vacant because of resignations, or because a member was removed by his colleagues. O'Keeffe is worried some board members may not show up for a public-comment meeting where no business is discussed.
"There's nothing other than their sense of duty to encourage board members to show up," he said.