Speakers at Berkeley County School District meetings can once again talk about any issue affecting the district without the fear of being muzzled.
On Tuesday, the board modified the cards it requires the public to fill out before speaking, removing a line added in June that banned talk about the state investigation into the district’s $198 million school improvement campaign. The move is an attempt by the district to resolve a lawsuit against board Chairman Kent Murray.
On the advice of attorneys from the Childs & Halligan law firm, the board also voted unanimously to revise two policies regarding public comments at board meetings — policy BCBI-R, “Public Participation in Board Meetings,” and policy KN, “Complaints by Parents and Citizens.”
Board member Doug Cooper was absent.
The changes double the total time for public comments to 30 minutes; let speakers talk about district-level executives; and allow people to address the board after exhausting the written appeal process. Also, the provision allowing the chairman to let people speak longer than three minutes now says that decision “shall not be based on the viewpoint of the speaker(s).”
“The change in policy, from my perspective, means that they figured out there’s something wrong,” said former board member Terry Hardesty.
In June, Hardesty, Nancy Corbin and Linda Riney filed a lawsuit against Murray, individually and in his official capacity, claiming their first and 14th amendment rights to free speech were violated when Murray banned comments about the State Law Enforcement Division’s investigation into the district’s Yes 4 Schools campaign.
Murray said he changed the cards before the June 11 meeting “to protect the integrity of the board’s decision-making process and ensure the ability to provide due process to our employees.” At the time, he also said the district’s lawyers advised that the action was “within my discretion.”
At that meeting, Hardesty was stopped from speaking by Murray, a move Hardesty said violated his rights and publicly embarrassed him.
After meeting in closed session Tuesday, the board passed first and second readings of the two revised policies, saying it was doing so under the advice of the lawyers.
Murray said it is not uncommon for the board to pass two readings at once, and board member Frank Wright agreed that the practice has been done on several occasions.
Board member Phillip Obie questioned the move.
“Is this based on this policy being not within the law or are we in violation of some law?” he asked. “Why are we doing first and second reading? To get it passed as soon as possible?”
Deputy Superintendent Archie Franchini said the district is not in violation of the law, but “at times when policies are time-sensitive, we’ve requested first and second reading.”
Murray added that “the attorneys made it clear in executive session they advised us to make this move.”
Board member Scott Marino then added, “For a point of clarification ... the reason that we are changing policy is due to the lawsuit that is ongoing right now with our board chair. ... It’s not that we just, on a whim, wanted to change a policy. ... There was an issue and this issue is being addressed and that’s why we’re asking for a revision of the policy.”
Murray declined to comment on the suit, which seeks to have his actions and the policy declared unconstitutional. A hearing is planned for Thursday.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.twitter.com/brindge.