Assault on Minutes Fails

No Motion for Second Reading

WINNSBORO – A move by the Fairfield County School Board to revise the way for-the-record statements are recorded in meeting minutes was stopped dead in its tracks when it failed to get the motion necessary to bring it to the floor for second and final reading during the Board’s March 17 meeting.

While the effort to amend the Board’s policy on minutes, which some critics said was merely an attempt to silence the Board minority and that conflicted with the state’s open records’ laws, may have perished, efforts to simplify the way minutes are kept may be ongoing.

The proposed changes to Policy BEDG, Minutes of Board Meetings, would have limited for-the-record comments by Board members to “written materials germane to the public agenda.” Those materials would have been limited to five pages, front and back, unless granted a special exception by the Board chairperson. The chairperson would also have had the power to rule such materials out of order and exclude them from the official minutes.

“I think it’s dead,” Board Chairwoman Beth Reid (District 7) told The Voice this week. “What we’re looking at now is an interpretation of our current policy. I am checking around on some legal opinions on exactly what the FOIA (S.C. Freedom of Information Act) entails regarding word-for-word transcriptions of minutes.”

The S.C. FOIA, under Section 30-4-90, requires that all public bodies keep minutes of public meetings. Minutes must include, but need not be limited to: 1) The date, time and place of the meeting; 2) The members of the public body recorded as either present or absent; 3) The substance of all matters proposed, discussed or decided and, at the request of any member, a record, by an individual member, of any votes taken; and 4) Any other information that any member of the public body requests be included or reflected in the minutes.

It was the Board’s attempt to reword the fourth provision that raised eyebrows.

“That is a problem,” Bill Rogers, Executive Director of the S.C. Press Association, said earlier this month, “when they can stifle Board members from putting things on the record that they (the majority) don’t agree with.”

Board members Paula Hartman (District 2) and Annie McDaniel (District 4) both questioned the proposed changes during the Feb. 17 meeting. Early in the March 17 meeting, Hartman again raised her objections.

“I wanted to say that I still think (the policy amendment) is against the FOIA,” Hartman said after the Board had approved the agenda. She was ruled out of order by Reid, who told Hartman the Board would address the policy when it came up under the superintendent’s report.

McDaniel, during the first reading debate, said the policy change was nothing more than an attempt by the Board’s majority to muzzle its minority.

“Disrespect for the minority on the Board, that’s what’s causing this,” McDaniel said on Feb. 17.

But Reid said the attempted policy change was not an effort to silence the minority, but to make life easier for the Board clerk. Reid said after first reading that said so many for-the-record statements were slowing down the compilation of the minutes.

“I understand the sentiment,” Board member William Frick (District 6), a Winnsboro attorney, told The Voice this week, “but legally, I don’t know what you can do.”

Frick, who placed the motion on the floor to approve the policy change during its first reading on Feb. 17, said his view of the policy changed over the last 30 days.

“I looked at it and realized my interpretation was not correct,” Frick said. “I thought it would allow you to say what you wanted to say at the meeting and submit written material. That’s not correct.”

Frick said the provision giving the chairperson the authority to reject for-the-record statements created a problem that he could not overcome and support. Revisiting the policy, he said, may also be a waste of time.

“As far as someone wanting to revise it and change it, I say good luck,” Frick said. “The way I look at it is we’ve got other things to worry about, so let’s move on.”