Highlands comment policy causes confusion, raises concerns
Residents are confused and a legal expert is concerned after the Highlands School Board approved changes to its policy on public comment at its meetings.
As revised, residents now are only able to comment on agenda items at the end of the school board’s planning meetings, and at the beginning of voting meetings.
The board attempted to follow the policy during its voting meeting Monday, during which it gave final approval to the revised policy. But residents objected, noting that “remarks by visitors” was on the agenda at the end of the meeting, rather than its start. The school board ultimately acquiesced and allowed residents to comment.
The state Sunshine Act requires agencies such as school boards to offer an opportunity for public comment on matters “that are or may be before the board,” said Melissa Melewsky, a media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. That is commonly understood and applied as not only an opportunity to comment on agenda items, but also to bring new business to a board’s attention.
“Residents and taxpayers have a right to bring issues to the attention of elected officials at public meetings, which is why the Sunshine Act requires agencies to offer public comment on a wide variety of topics,” she said. “Policies that limit public comment to agenda items only may be inconsistent with the Sunshine Act’s public participation requirements because they are too narrow and impose an unreasonable restriction on the public’s ability to comment on agency business.”
A practice of school boards allowing comment on agenda items only at the start of a meeting, and non-agenda items at the end of a meeting, “is very common and typically compliant with the Sunshine Act,” Melewsky said.
School board President Debbie Beale and Judy Wisner, chair of the board’s policy committee, could not be reached for comment.
The policy provision for comment at the end of planning meetings could be problematic, because there is nothing in state law prohibiting the board from taking action at a planning meeting, Melewsky said.
“If public comment is delayed until the end of the meeting, after official action, it would be inconsistent with the Sunshine Act’s requirement that public comment be provided before official action,” she said. “There’s also the possible deterrent effect of having public comment at the very end of a meeting, which could discourage public participation.”
During Monday’s meeting, the school board voted to add an item to its agenda, a resolution in support of funding for family support centers. The board did not provide an opportunity for public comment before voting to approve the resolution.
“They should have permitted public comment on the proposed resolution before they voted,” Melewsky said.
Melewsky also called “troubling” a change in the policy concerning the availability of meeting agendas and documents. Instead of having paper copies available at the meeting, the district is posting them on its website. The agenda is being projected on a screen at the meeting, and the district provides guest access to its wifi system.
While posting meeting documents online is a “great tool” for the public, the district should continue to provide hard copies at public meetings for those who cannot access them, Melewsky said.
“Data shows that many Pennsylvanians do not have access to digital resources or the ability to use them,” she said. “This is a particular issue for older Pennsylvanians, people in rural communities with limited or absent broadband coverage, people with disabilities, and people from a depressed socio-economic environment.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .