COLUMBIA — A Richland County School District One board meeting was relocated Tuesday to an elementary school because of technical problems, but it was no accident that part of the session’s remote feed dropped for a few minutes.
During a public input period, officials cut the broadcast for roughly six minutes before going live again — a policy district spokeswoman Karen York said is consistent with pre-coronavirus formats despite running afoul of South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act law.
“The district historically has not recorded or broadcast public comments made during board meetings. The same practice is being followed with board meetings that are livestreamed,” York said. Officials didn't respond to follow-up inquiries about how long the policy has been in place, or why it was implemented.
While no law exists requiring public bodies to allow for comment, excising portions of an open meeting is a problem.
On Richland One's Dec. 8 agenda, the public participation section takes place just after an invocation and approval of the agenda. All are listed under "PUBLIC SESSION."
And preventing the public from hearing any element of an open meeting— no matter how benign or brief — violates the state’s FOI statute, experts say.
“It’s the district breaking the law and hurting their public image,” S.C. Press Association President Bill Rogers said. “That’s an important part of the meeting that should be open. These are tough times, but the public has a right to hear these meetings in their entirety.”
Richland One’s stance deviates from other major capital region school districts, including Richland Two and Lexington-Richland 5, where public comments are aired as part of their broadcasts. Both have also been slammed by residents in recent weeks over COVID-19 reentry policies in footage carried live.
Richland One officials temporarily suspended the inclusion of public comment as part of their meetings beginning in March, when they stared being conducted virtually, but added the portion back in October. That followed a recommendation by the state association of school boards to limit public participation so long as social distancing guidelines are in place.
Incoming Richland One board Chairman Aaron Bishop deferred comment about the policy of not broadcasting public comments to district officials.
Richard Whiting, chairman of the state press association’s FOIA committee, said the current one flouts language clearly outlined in South Carolina law.
“Richland One’s school board needs a little educating. It’s really rather basic. By its very label, a public meeting is public, which means whatever is said in open session is on the record and no one should or can expect otherwise,” Whiting, executive editor of the Index-Journal in Greenwood, said. “The open meetings law is very specific about what can be discussed behind closed doors and what is otherwise open and on record.”
What’s actually said during public comment sessions isn’t preserved in minutes either. The district’s formal recap of an Oct. 27 meeting acknowledges two comments were received by email. In one case, a person’s name is disclosed, but the topic on which they were speaking was not. Outgoing Chairman Jamie Devine tossed a second comment because it conflicted with the board’s policy against naming any “individual school personnel or any other person connected with the school system,” according to the minutes.
South Carolina’s ninth-largest school district has run into transparency issues before. Last year, Richland One was ordered to pay more than $4,200 in attorney’s fees to Nancy Miramonti, who sued after asserting board members took action in executive session related to a transfer request policy.
Judge Robert Hood agreed there was enough evidence to suggest the district violated state open government laws.