WARWICK, RI – The School Committee adopted a new public comments policy Monday night limiting how many words someone can say and the time they have to say it.
The Oct. 27 meeting’s public comment portion lasted two hours due to the high volume of correspondence.
This resulted in the committee not being able to vote on certain issues, including a distance learning plan, according to chairperson Karen Bachus.
“We are not getting the vital business done for the district that we need to,” Bachus said Tuesday. “The City Council provides the public with the ability to make comment on public matters for 15 minutes one time per month. Not two, one meeting per month. We have gone above and beyond, but we are not getting our work done.”
“At this point, it’s just gotten out of control,” said vice-chair Judy Cobden.
With the new policy, during future meetings, public comments will be limited to 30 minutes, unless the chair feels more time is needed. The comments will be limited to agenda items only. Comments will be capped at 350 words. Only correspondence with names and contact information will be read. Anonymous comments will not be read. Only one comment will be allowed per person, which will occur on a “first come, first serve” basis. “Inappropriate” and “salacious” comments will not be read.
The committee voted 4 – 1 approving the policy.
Member Nathan Cornell, the lone ‘no’ vote, said he was concerned about a limit on how many comments could be shared at the meeting.
“Do you understand that you’re elected to do the work for the public of the schools?,” Bachus said to Cornell, “Not to sit and listen to public comment which you have no way of commenting on, no way of giving any sort of information, do you understand that? You were elected to do the work of the school.”
“I was elected to do the work of the school,” Cornell replied. “But I was also elected to hear the concerns of the public. (Mandating) 10 comments maximum is too little.”
Bachus said if people did have concerns, they were free to contact the members of the School Committee. Bachus also stated 350 words was sufficient to express their thoughts.
“It is a comment. It is not a novel. It is not a book. It is not a thesis or a term paper. It is a comment. It’s not a personal letter,” Bachus noted.
When Cornell asked what would qualify as “salacious” comments, Bachus said “no swearing, no off-color inappropriate comments” would be tolerated.
“I think it’s very evident to anyone watching here is if someone is going to lace a public comment with f-bombs and swear words and things like that, they can’t expect that…” member David Testa said.
“Not going to be read,” Bachus interjected.
The public comments read at the Oct. 27 meeting were from teachers and parents who were outraged by comments made by Bachus at a previous meeting. Bachus acknowledged her comments had been “insensitive” and began the meeting with an apology to the teachers.