The Lafayette Parish School Board’s decision to cut the time it traditionally set aside at the end of its meetings for the public to approach members on any issue could lead to board members no longer having the same privilege.
Board President Tommy Angelle removed the public comment section that was reserved for the end of the board’s meetings from the board’s agenda last month based on attorneys’ concern that it opened the door for the public to discuss issues that aren’t on the agenda.
“You can’t unring the bell,” board attorney Danielle Boudreaux said during Wednesday’s board meeting. “Someone gets up there, starts talking about a personnel matter or a student issue — that’s a serious issue for this board. You can’t tell what’s going to come out of someone’s mouth.”
The School Board approved the policy change Wednesday, along with other policy revisions related to board operations. The board is updating and revising all of its policies section by section.
Prior to the board’s vote on the policy concerning public involvement in meetings, board member Tehmi Chassion questioned the attorneys’ basis for excluding public comment from the agenda based on a concern that the board has no control what someone may say.
State law requires that the board allow public comment before taking a vote on an issue, he noted, and the board has no assurances that someone won’t speak off topic during that allowable time for public comment.
The agenda allows board members to make public comments, though the agenda was recently changed to reflect those as “announcements” by board members rather than the previous “public comments.”
If the board wants to make the argument that allowing members of the public to talk about anything they want could violate open meetings law because the issues aren’t noticed on the agenda, Chassion said, it should have the same concern about the open comment period from board members.
“Comments that I’m going to get to make at the end of this meeting ... aren’t part of the agenda,” Chassion said.
“I guess we all need to shut up at the end of the meeting, as well,” he said later.
Board member Dawn Morris said she’d be in support of removing the option for board members to make public comments at the end of the meeting. Before the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, Angelle said that change could be forthcoming.
Chassion noted that past board presidents — Shelton Cobb, Hunter Beasley — and current President Angelle have been effective in taking charge and curbing disrespectful language and the occasional rant.
Chassion voted against that particular policy revision. Those board members who supported it said they think the change actually brings about greater public involvement because a member of the public can request from a board member that their issue be placed on the agenda — opening the door for discussion.
“I would prefer constituents to contact me so we can add it to the agenda so we can discuss it during the meeting,” said board member Britt Latiolais. “If it’s an agenda item, we can openly and actively discuss the needs of the constituent.”
Constituents contacting a board member about their issue so it can be placed on the agenda also enables board members and staff to adequately research their issue, said board member Mary Morrison. In the past, board members haven’t been able to offer any potential resolutions because they were hearing about the issue for the first time, she said.
“Feel comfortable contacting any one of us about any issue you want us to know about,” Morrison told people attending Wednesday’s meeting. “We’re not trying to silence you in any way.”
Retired educators who frequently attend the meeting questioned the policy change that would remove the time the public has at the end of the meeting to address the board.
“I have been a board watcher for almost 40 years and never has the public’s opinion been stifled,” Mary Washington told the board.
Another retired educator, Pat Sonnier, suggested the board have the public fill out comment cards before the start of meetings that indicate what issue they plan to address the board about — a practice followed by the Lafayette City-Parish Council.
Board member Erick Knezek said the policy change is to help streamline the board meeting process and doesn’t restrict the public from commenting on issues to be considered by the board for action. It also doesn’t restrict the public’s access to the board to share their concerns, he added.
The opportunity for public comment is for the public to weigh in on board decisions, he said.
“It’s not to provide people a pulpit to say what they want when they want,” Knezek said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.