Board opts to not broadcast public comments

Published 12:23 pm Monday, December 4, 2023

The Southampton County School Board continues to offer a public comment period for those who wish to address the board, but the board reached a consensus earlier this year that it would not broadcast the period on its YouTube livestream.

Starting in August, the audio and video cuts out on the livestream for the duration of the period, and this has continued with the board’s subsequent meetings.

In an interview with The Tidewater News, Board Chair Dr. Deborah Goodwyn addressed questions about the matter by making a point of putting the discussion in context.

“(For) this one, I think context is important because you know that Virginia law does not require us to hold a public comment period at all, but as a board we choose to do so because we do want to hear what the community thinks about educating children in Southampton County,” she said. “So we feel that it’s important.

“However, we also need to make sure as a board that during the public comment period we don’t have disinformation or misinformation being circulated,” she continued. “Our board does not respond to public comments, so because we don’t respond to public comments, it’s easy enough to leave the public confused or misinformed or disinformed. 

“So we wanted to make sure community members had an opportunity to address the board, so we left the public comment period there, but we reached [the] consensus that we would not broadcast the public comment period simply because it could lead to some confusion in terms of information,” she said.

When asked when the board decided not to broadcast public comment, Goodwyn said, “This is a board discussion, so there was never a vote. It was a consensus that the board reached after discussion.”

After being asked if the consensus was likely reached in closed session at the end of the board’s July meeting, just prior to the first instance of not broadcasting the public comment period, Goodwyn explained that the discussion was not limited to one day or setting.

“I think it’s hard to pinpoint the exact time for this, because we’ve been discussing for a while and not during closed session but just in our interactions,” she said. “We’ve just been discussing for a while what can we do or how can we structure our meetings so that the public still has a chance to address the board but to limit the amount of misinformation, disinformation, confusing information that the community is exposed to, so I can’t give you a date, and I don’t even want to try to give you a date that the board came to this agreement.”

She then returned the focus to what has not changed at all — the public’s ability to address the board.

“Community members still have an opportunity to address the board, which is what public comment is all about — giving community members an opportunity to address the board about issues they feel affect the education of our students,” she said. 

Goodwyn immediately dismissed the possibility that the broadcast of other board agenda items might be impacted in a way similar to that of the public comment period.

“Oh no, because the public comment period is the part that’s not mandated by law,” she said. “But board business, the general board business, is open to the public, so no, nothing else would be impacted. And of course, the meetings are still open to anybody who wants to come, so anybody who wants to hear what goes on in public comment periods, it’s still held in public.”

When asked if there was any discussion among board members of possibly not broadcasting the meetings at all, given a potential lack of legal requirement to do so, Goodwyn made clear this was not the intention of the board.

“To my knowledge, broadcasting meetings is not required by law,” she said. “However, at this point, the Southampton County School Board does not have any plan to stop broadcasting the meeting.”

ANALYSIS FROM THE VCOG

Megan Rhyne is executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and offers an analysis of the practices of governing bodies in the state.

On the coalition’s website, representatives of the coalition state, “We are a nonprofit alliance formed to promote expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level. Our efforts are focused solely on local/state information access. While we do some lobbying (within limits imposed by IRS rules), our primary work is educational.”

Rhyne was given the opportunity to share analysis of Goodwyn’s explanation of the Southampton County School Board’s process and consensus toward not broadcasting its public comment period.

Rhyne noted that generally, public comment period rules are a common topic in Virginia, and she cited a recent example from Prince William County in which a school board there was considering amending its citizen participation policy.

Rhyne said she was troubled by two things in Goodwyn’s responses to questions from The Tidewater News.

“One is the notion that this change is necessitated by the need to counter mis- or disinformation,” she said. “While mis/disinformation is a real problem, I’m disappointed that the solution is to tinker with the broadcast of public comment and not to tinker with the board’s policy not to engage or respond to false information. In fact, if the goal is to limit the spread of dis/misinformation, it seems to me that the best way to do that is to correct it on the spot and to do that in the most public way possible (i.e., broadcast) so that everyone can hear. You’re not really solving the problem by letting the dis/misinformation stand within the meeting setting where individuals are still free to share and spread it without correction.

“The other troubling thing is this notion that reaching a consensus is somehow different from the board making a decision without a public vote,” Rhyne added. 

She said that “decisions about changing public comment periods are usually discussed in public, and they also frequently allow for public comment. As with other general policies of a board, they are typically adopted by a board vote.”

Rhyne concluded by stating, “Consensus without public discussion is exactly the kind of thing (the Freedom of Information Act) is trying to avoid. We want our public officials to talk about their decisions in public and make their votes public so that they can be held accountable.”