Proposed Policy Change Pits Board Against FOIA

WINNSBORO – With the final reading pending on a revision to the School Board’s policy on how for-the-record statements are recorded in meeting minutes, the Board Chairwoman has indicated some uncertainty in how, or even if, the policy change can move forward. One of the minds behind the state’s open records law, meanwhile, has weighed in on the revision, calling the proposed change “problematic.”

The Board passed first reading of the revision during their Feb. 17 meeting on a 4-2 vote, with Annie McDaniel and Paula Hartman offering the only opposition to Chairwoman Beth Reid, Henry Miller, William Frick and Carl Jackson (Andrea Harrison was absent from the Feb. 17 meeting). The proposed changes to Policy BEDG, Minutes of Board Meetings, would limit for-the-record comments by Board members to “written materials germane to the public agenda.” Those materials would be limited to five pages, front and back, unless granted a special exception by the Board chairperson. The statement “must be presented in writing to the board’s secretary or the board chairman at the time of the meeting.”

The written statements would be “designated as an attachment to the minutes,” the revision states, and not as part of the minutes themselves. The chairperson would also have “the prerogative to rule any such request out of order for the reason that such materials are not germane to the agenda, are inappropriate as an attachment or that the materials are otherwise publicly available; such ruling by the presiding officer will stand unless overturned by the board majority.”

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), however, which governs, among other things, how public bodies maintain records of meetings, contains no such provisions or restrictions regarding the minutes of meetings. Placing restrictions at the local level on a state law is “problematic,” according to Bill Rogers, Executive Director of the S.C. Press Association.

“That is a problem,” Rogers said this week, “when they can stifle Board members from putting things on the record that they (the majority) don’t agree with.”

Reid said the intent of the policy revision was not to silence the minority, but was instead an effort to make the compilation of minutes more efficient. An overwhelming number of for-the-record comments during every meeting, Reid said, was hampering efforts by the Board clerk to compile minutes in a timely manner. Furthermore, she said, the District consulted with it attorneys from the Childs and Halligan Law Firm before proposing the change.

“We have from legal counsel advice that (the policy revision) does meet the standard of the FOIA,” Reid said.

Reid added that the policy is taken verbatim from a policy that has been in place at the Lexington-Richland 5 school district since at least 2012. But Rogers said Lexington-Richland 5 has a poor track record when it comes to transparency.

“Lexington-Richland 5 is not a good role model for openness,” Rogers said.

Frick, a Winnsboro attorney who serves with the Public Defender’s Office, placed the motion to adopt the change on the floor during the Feb. 17 meeting. This week, however, he said he was on the fence heading into the second and final reading.

“I don’t know if I can vote in favor of it as it is written,” Frick said, “but I do think something needs to be done about (the number of for-the-record comments).”

Frick said he supported the revisions in first reading so that the Board could discuss the issue.

“I knew we would have a second vote on it,” he said.

Reid told The Voice this week that changes could be implemented to the revision prior to final reading.

“I want to work together to make it right,” Reid said. “We don’t want to stifle freedom of speech. We don’t want to violate the law or create the appearance in any way that it’s more than it is, which is to make the minutes more efficient in the future.”