Berkeley school board chair lets speakers talk about investigation, but speakers call his comments a threat

Linda Riney of Cross was among the Berkeley County residents who addressed the school board, including chairman Kent Murray (from right), Superintendent Rodney Thompson and members Kathy Schwalbe and Shannon Lee. Buy this photo

Saying he had received a letter threatening legal action, Berkeley County School Board Chairman Kent Murray allowed residents to talk about the ongoing state investigation of the district at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Terry Hardesty, a former school board member who last week sent the letter to Murray, said his letter was not a threat.

“It was a promise,” he said. After the meeting, he said he plans to file a lawsuit over the issue.

After Murray read the board’s policy on public participation Tuesday, he said he added the statement banning comments on the State Law Enforcement Division’s investigation into charges that employees used district time and resources to work on November’s $198 million Yes 4 School campaign.

“I want to emphasize that this clarification is not a revision of board policy, but rather my decision as chairman,” he said.

He said he would not interrupt speakers “in order to minimize the disruption of the meeting and to avoid unnecessary legal costs to the district. I wish to remind any speakers who make comments publicly, however, they are personally responsible for what they say.”

Several people who addressed the board Tuesday said they took Murray’s comment as a threat.

“It absolutely was a threat,” said Linda Riney. “How could you take it as anything else?”

Ryan Gilsenan, a lawyer, agreed.

“I am happy these folks picked that up and it did not take a lawyer to point it out,” he said.

After the policy was put into place at the June 10 meeting, S.C. Press Association lawyer Jay Bender said the action violated the First and 14th amendments’ rights of free speech and the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The board did not discuss or vote on altering the policy during a meeting.

In his June 20 letter to Murray, Hardesty wrote in part, “I believe you have caused damage to me by depriving me of my constitutional rights ... you publicly chided me and would not allow me to proceed. Such an outrageous act by the chairman of our largest local governing body is beyond the pale, and I believe antithetical to our Republican government.”

He pointed out that outgoing Board Chairman Doug Cooper spoke about the investigation at the May 14 board meeting.

“For the Board to be allowed to comment but disallow private citizens is quite frankly appalling,” Hardesty wrote, adding that he believes Murray’s actions were contrary to established law.

After the “citizen comments” portion of the meeting on Tuesday, two board members also weighed in.

Board member Phillip Obie said he does not agree with the statement Murray added to the policy and feels the board should seek legal advice regarding it.

Cooper said only one side of the story has been heard.

“No one to this day has been charged with anything,” he said. “You people have your hands on volumes and volumes of information that have been (received through South Carolina Freedom of Information Act requests) and continue to place large FOIAs against the district to consume resources... Obviously, it generated an investigation. But to jump out and publicly try in the press, the paper, the radio, everything else, these people have not had due process. They will. The investigation will end and then the board will be able to deal with that. So it is a personnel issue for us.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.

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