Board ponders public/private statements

Published 8:50 am Thursday, March 4, 2010

WINDSOR – Members of the Bertie County Board of Education made it clear that each member should speak for their own thoughts and not try to represent the entire board here Monday night.

During its regular meeting, four members of the board said they were concerned about the media publication of a letter by Chairwoman Emma Johnson to the Bertie County Commissioners.

Board member Alton Parker said he asked for the item to be placed on the agenda because he wanted to make sure the board had a clear understanding of who makes statements to media outlets and what is said.

“We need to make sure everyone is in agreement,” he said. “I realize we’re not always in agreement, but we need to make sure that the board is at least aware of what is being said.”

Parker asked Board Attorney Rod Malone if there was a policy concerning the board being represented to the media.

Malone said the current policy, which was recently updated, authorizes the board chair and superintendent or superintendent’s designee to speak to the media so long as they represent the interests of the board.

Board member Pamela Chamblee said she took issue with that because conceivably the board chair and superintendent could say anything and represent it as being from the board.

She asked if an addendum to the policy could be added that would require board members to be made aware of any statement made to the media.

Johnson said she would not allow her first amendment right to free speech to be circumvented because she served as board chair.

Parker said the letter, which was signed by Johnson and written to Bertie Commission Chairman Norman M. Cherry Sr., should have made it clear that she was sending it as a citizen and not as board chair.

The letter, which was also published in another newspaper and was forwarded to this publication, is written from Johnson on her private stationary and signed simply Emma Johnson. While it does refer to her service on the school board, it does not make mention of her position as chairwoman.

“I am not going to let anyone circumvent my rights,” Johnson said.

Malone said no board member could control how the newspaper linked a statement made as a private citizen to their service on the board, but stressed that a board member should make it clear when they are representing their personal views.

Chamblee said she disagreed.

“If Barack Obama writes a statement, he can sign it as a private citizen all he wants, but he’s still President of the United States,” Chamblee said. “You don’t get to put that hat on and take it off.”

Malone said he was not aware of any policy that would prevent a board member from making comments outside their role as an elected official.

“You are free to make comments as an individual,” Malone said. “People will attach your role as a board member, but that can’t be stopped. At least if you make it clear that you are speaking as an individual, your fellow board members will be satisfied that you made that attempt.”

Malone said he would draft and addendum to the policy and return it to the board for their consideration at an upcoming meeting.