No Comment: LPSB ultimately turns away from comment card proposition

By Malcolm Butler

There were an awful lot of comments for something that ultimately turned into no comment.

As in no comment cards, that is.

After more than 40 minutes of discussion Tuesday night, including a plethora of public comments from a handful of Lincoln Parish residents, the Lincoln Parish School Board decided to dismiss a motion that would have added a new policy where comment cards would be part of its normal monthly meetings.

In a topic that has been brewing for the past few months and that was tabled until Tuesday night’s meeting, District 5 representative Danny Hancock made a motion to dismiss the idea of the new policy after listening to plenty of opposition from a few fellow jurors and three or four residents.

Although a number of board members including President Joe Mitcham as well as LPSB Superintendent Ricky Durrett voiced their beliefs to the validity of the comment cards, the motion to dismiss was ultimately approved by a vote of 10-1 with District 7 board member Hunter Smith being the lone dissenting vote (Otha Anders was not in attendance to vote).

According to attorney Jon K. Guice who was present at the meeting, more and more local government entities are moving towards a comment card policy. The policies required citizens attending the meetings to fill out a comment card in advance of the meeting starting in order to talk during the public comment portion of agenda items.

The Lincoln Parish Police Jury utilizes such a policy.

Guice said such a policy protects the school board from legal action that would occur if public comment wasn’t allowed in any given meeting.

“All I tell you is the law,” said Guice. “It’s up to you to decide what is best for your entity. The reason 38 (school) boards have adopted such a policy … is because of a case that happened in Vermilion Parish. They didn’t ask for public comment and the court set aside the meeting.

“Since then the Attorney General has taken the same approach. In Ouachita Parish they forgot to ask for public comment, and the attorney general made them redo the entire meeting. In order to avoid that possibility the policy is adopted for people to turn in a comment card prior to the meeting. It’s not to keep people from talking.”

Following Guice’s explanation of the reasoning for developing the comment card policy, a number of residents in attendance gave their opinions on the idea of adapting the comment card policy.

“There is no way to get around the public comments,” said Bill Smith. “The legislators in Baton Rouge saw fit to single out the school boards and said John Q. Public must have an opportunity to comment on any of these items that you are about to pass. So we can’t forget public comments. It’s there. I can talk.

“When I come I don’t know what’s on ya’lls mind. A lot of times I get my feedback from listening to you and then developing questions. But I didn’t fill out the card when I got here. I don’t see this as a problem. I don’t see how its going to cut down the meeting time or any of that because the law is clear.”

Kwenita Lewis-Garner said she believes the comment cards are a way to try to prevent individuals from speaking up.

“I have never spoken in this forum before but this is insulting,” said Lewis-Garner. “This is a blatant attempt to silence those of us who are here. It is the equivalent of a poll tax, a literacy test. It is making me furious. I am sure it will make other people furious too.

“In the face of a demoralizing defeat on the bond proposal, you don’t need to hear less from us. You need to hear more from us. We need to be working together and this is not that. It is infuriating. How can we speak to things we don’t know about.”

Hunter Smith said he hoped a new policy would have helped provide more structure and increased opportunities for everyone to be heard. However, he ultimately asked that all parties respect the other side when commenting.

“What I would ask for is this is a place of business,” said Hunter Smith. “I think something that we really have to work on together … and that’s not just board members or public — is allowing people to speak without being spoken over. Whether or not that is our attorney, our superintendent, our board members or the public. That is just common courtesy to each other.

“I think the comment cards for me personally helps. (I may not know your name) and I would love to know your name because that helps me the next time I see you in Super One. There are lots of people who have things to say, and I think there are a lot of people who don’t get heard because they don’t have an allotted time to stand up. I understand it. But the idea that we are talking over each other … that is what I would love to see cleaned up.”

Board members Dr. Danielle Williams and David Ferguson were vehemently against the comment cards while other board members spoke to both sides of it without necessarily expressing over-ridingly strong stances.

Alternatives to the comment cards were also mentioned such as just setting a time limit for public comments.

“It is conceivable for you to have a policy where you put a time limit on public comments,” said Guice. “That’s set by the board. It’s not at the discretion of the president or superintendent.”

However, after 40 minutes of debate, the topic was dismissed as the school board moved on to its next agenda item.