By Kristal Dixon, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga
Public comments were once again blocked from the live broadcast of the Cobb County Board of Education’s meeting on Thursday.
Board members spent the first 30 minutes listening to public commenters while viewers on the district’s website were left in the dark.
A Cobb County School District spokesman said Thursday that while the board is holding virtual meetings during the pandemic, they are taking extra security measures to ensure comments are appropriate and comply with its policy.
It was the same explanation the district gave last month when it blocked out comments before the Aug. 20 live virtual meeting. That decision drew criticism from residents and open government advocates who said the move violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
School district officials again cited a board policy that calls for the district to verify whether those who address the board live in Cobb, own property in the county or are district employees.
All commenters are recorded and later those who pass the board’s checks are added to video of the meeting, which is posted online after the live meeting ends. By Friday afternoon, comments from members of the public were added to Thursday’s meeting video. Seven people signed up to speak, but a couple were skipped because the board could not hear them.
When meetings are held in-person, Cobb school board officials usually check each speaker’s state-issued identification before they are allowed to address the board, the district previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Richard T. Griffiths, spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the actions from Thursday’s meeting “appears to be a deliberate act.” The public deserves to know what ideas speakers are sharing to school board members, Griffiths said.
“They need to understand who is influencing the board at its meeting and they deserve a complete understanding of how those public meeting are taking place,” he said.
He also criticized the school board’s policy of verifying if public commenters live or own property in Cobb County.
“That is not democracy,” he said. “Democracy does not stop at the county line.”
Griffiths said the only recourse the public has is to file a complaint with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.
Katie Byrd, spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Carr said the state’s informal Open Government Mediation Program allows residents or members of the media to file a complaint about a local government’s decision to close an open meeting.
A government found to be in violation could be convicted of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine of up to $1,000.
School board member Charisse Davis said she will bring up the topic of public comment at the board’s Oct. 15 meeting. Davis said viewers expect virtual board meeting to begin at the published 10 a.m. start time and when that doesn’t happen, they begin to wonder what’s going on.
“That’s just not a natural flow of the meeting,” she said.
Board Chairman Brad Wheeler said he hopes the board will be able to hold in-person meetings so they can hear from the public in its traditional format. He also said the district should address the technical issues that prevent the board from complying with state law.
“That’s one of the things that we need to make sure works,” he said.