Policy, FOIA need updates

Published 10:21 pm Tuesday, November 5, 2019

For many months now, parties interested in the Suffolk School Board have complained about delayed release of the board’s agendas and related materials. We hope a resolution is on its way.

The public needs to be able to see the board agenda in advance in order to know what important items will be discussed. Members of the public also need to know if there are any issues they wish to speak about to the board in order to sign up to do so. But for quite some time, the public hasn’t had access to agendas far enough in advance to prepare.

As an answer to the complaints, board members have simply pointed the finger at the board’s clerk, who has now resigned, stating that she had an illness in her family.

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We find this to be a flimsy excuse and a poor reflection on the board. The former clerk should not be blamed for prioritizing her family, and a school system the size of Suffolk’s should have had at least one other employee who could have been taking care of this duty in her absence.

Instead, the school system, it seems, just let it slide, and as a result, members of the public were left unprepared — or even unable — to speak at several meetings. At least one School Board member even said at a recent meeting he felt unprepared to vote on matters before the board, having just received the agenda and materials earlier that same day.

Currently, according to School Board Attorney Wendell Waller, nothing in policy requires release of agendas and informational materials on agenda items within a certain number of days before the meeting.

The law also doesn’t require agendas and materials to be furnished at any particular time. The state’s Freedom of Information Act requires that meeting notices (not agendas) be given at least three working days prior to a meeting, and it requires agendas and materials to be furnished to the public at the same time they are furnished to the members of the public body itself (in this case, School Board members). But it doesn’t state how far ahead of the meeting agendas and materials must be provided.

By way of comparison, Suffolk City Council agendas and materials are typically released on the Friday afternoon before its Wednesday meeting.

This situation should be resolved as soon as possible by a new policy requiring release of agendas and materials at least three working days in advance. One board member has proposed a week, and we think that would be even better.

We also call upon the state FOIA committee to look into an amendment to state law regarding this issue. That will prevent public bodies all over the state from delaying release of agendas, either inadvertently or with the intent to hide something, without fear of consequence.