Dorchester 2 to put restrictions on public comments

- As community activist Louis Smith thanked the Dorchester 2 School Board on Monday for working together on the naming of new schools, televisions mounted on the walls of the board room ticked down the seconds.

It was a sign of things to come as the board prepares for a new policy that will require advanced registration for people who want to address the board and will limit the amount of time they speak.

The policy, which received initial approval Monday, is similar to one used in Berkeley County that requires speakers to fill out a comment card at least five minutes before the meeting that includes their name, address, telephone number and topic to be addressed.

Charleston County requires speakers to sign in before the meeting and limits them to two minutes, with a total of 30 minutes maximum for comments. The policy also limits each speaker from addressing the same topic more than twice a year.

The new Dorchester 2 policy includes other guidelines - the board will not take action on comments; comments regarding an employee or student will not be heard; groups addressing the same topic should select one representative.

Speakers then will have three minutes to address the board, but the head of the board has the right to grant more time or to stop speakers who don't follow the procedures. The comment period is limited to 20 minutes total.

The policy will have to get final approval from the board before it is put into place, board Chairwoman Gail Hughes said. That could be as soon as Feb. 10.

The policy simplifies the procedure, Hughes said.

The previous policy, adopted in 1987 and last revised in 2001, allowed a four-minute limit for speakers to address agenda items and 20 minutes at the end of the meeting for "input from citizens on items of general interest to our schools and the public they serve."

Berkeley County's policy has recently come under fire. In June, former board member Terry Hardesty filed a lawsuit against board Chairman Kent Murray alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated after he was prevented from speaking at a meeting. Murray said he changed the comment cards to ban speakers from addressing a state investigation into the district's November 2012 bond referendum campaign, the topic Hardesty was addressing.

The restriction was later removed from the cards and speakers were allowed to address the investigation, but the suit is ongoing.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.

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