By Tessa Raebeck
A proposed revision on the public input policy for Sag Harbor School Board meetings, which board president Theresa Samot says aims to increase public participation, would also give the board the right to suspend community members’ privilege to speak should their conduct be considered inappropriate.
A second reading of the proposed changes to the board’s existing policy, Public Expression at Meetings, will be held at next Monday night’s board meeting. The board has two readings on a policy before it is approved.
“The thought behind this policy is to allow more public input and more flexibility,” Samot said of the proposed changes.
The current policy, which has been under scrutiny by the board for over a year, asks community members to submit a reservation to speak during Public Input I — at the beginning of school board meetings — prior to noon on the Friday before the board meets. It stated, “Speakers will not be precluded from speaking if they do not sign up ahead of time.”
Which means, although community members are encouraged to submit requests before they speak, it is not technically mandated.
“There has been a lot of confusion and discussion as to if people were following that rule or not,” said board member Mary Anne Miller on Tuesday, who noted she was not speaking on behalf of the board as a whole but as an individual board member.
The new policy allows the public to sign up for Public Input I at any time prior to the start of the meeting.
“That will certainly give people more flexibility to sign up,” said Samot.
Drafted by Miller and board vice president Chris Tice, the revisions follow a template provided by the New York State School Board Association.
“What we essentially did was completely start from scratch,” said Miller. “The other policy had a lot of extra information in it that didn’t seem necessary and complicated the issue.”
The revisions clarify the time limit on public input speakers. The existing policy permitted a time limit of “three to five minutes,” while the new policy clearly limits input at five minutes. According to Samot, the limit “is open to board discussion.”
“If we have many people that want to speak on a topic, we can certainly extend that,” she said.
The revised policy was first read aloud at the board meeting on Monday, May 7. Following the reading, board member Susan Kinsella proposed that an additional sentence be included in the policy.
“There should be some kind of recourse on the part of the board if someone does something egregious in public input,” said Kinsella.
Kinsella proposed the following sentence: “If a member of the community fails to conduct themselves appropriately or violates the rules set forth herein, the board has the right to suspend that community member’s privilege of speaking during public input.”
Kinsella could not be reached for comment this week.
The board agreed to include the sentence in the second reading of the proposed policy on Monday, May 20, during which it will be addressed and potentially reconsidered.
“I’m not 100 percent comfortable with this statement,” said Miller. “I believe it needs more clarification. I intend to ask a few more questions about it.”
“People acting inappropriately is sort of addressed already in the policy,” said Miller. The initial revision, as drafted by Tice and Miller, includes a statement on appropriate conduct: “All speakers are to conduct themselves in a civil and respectful manner. Obscene language, libelous statements, threats of violence, statements advocating racial, religious, or other forms of prejudice will not be tolerated.”
The sentence proposed by Kinsella calls into question the bounds of what is considered disrespectful and how the decision to terminate a community member’s participation would be made in a fair manner. It does not clarify whether the community member would be temporarily dismissed from speaking at board meetings or banned entirely.
When asked how the board would decide what is considered appropriate, Samot replied, “Using vulgar language and violence, something that would be considered unacceptable behavior in any arena.”
“We often have passionate discussions and people disagreeing,” said Samot. “We certainly want to hear everybody’s opinion. It certainly wouldn’t be that, it would be something very inappropriate.”
“There’s an interpretation issue in there that we would need to hash out if I were to agree with it,” said Miller of the addition. “I don’t think we should only be speaking about suspending community members’ privileges, without speaking about the board, the staff, and the community as well.”
The board will review the proposed changes in the second reading of the policy during Monday’s board meeting, which begins with a scheduled executive session at 5:30 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the Pierson High School library.