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Online petition urges school board to bar nonresidents from speaking at public meetings

A Sayville resident has started a petition asking

A Sayville resident has started a petition asking the school board to bar nonresidents from speaking at public meetings. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Some Sayville residents are asking the school board to bar nonresidents from speaking at public meetings amid a debate over whether students should wear masks in class.

An online petition circulated by Sayville resident Edward O’Donnell has received more than 100 virtual signatures since it was posted last week. The petition says there is no legal requirement that nonresidents be allowed to speak.

O'Donnell, 61, who works in marketing and television production, said he created the petition after non-Sayville residents at a recent meeting asked the school board to drop mask requirements for students.

"The whole point in having a local school district is it’s run locally," said O'Donnell, who said his two grown children graduated from Sayville schools. "If you’re going to get a whole lot of people from Bohemia, you might as well have a Suffolk County school system."

O'Donnell said he planned to present the petition to Sayville school officials later this week.

School district officials said in an email they have no plans of banning nonresidents from speaking.

"We believe this position is fully supported by the spirit and meaning of the [state] Open Meetings Law," district officials said. "To find otherwise, we believe, would be to silence those who, but for their residence, may otherwise have valid concerns with the work of the Board of Education."

The open meetings law "is silent on the issue of public comment" and does not bar measures restricting nonresidents from speaking at meetings, said Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government.

The committee generally encourages public bodies to allow participation for anyone who wishes to speak, she said, adding people barred from speaking could challenge that policy in court.

"We encourage them to establish reasonable rules regarding participation that are enforced fairly," O'Neill said in an interview. "What a court would look to is whether a rule is reasonable."

O'Donnell said he disagreed with those calling for a ban on masks, adding he felt the speakers were spreading "a lot of disinformation." Masks have been required under state pandemic rules.

O'Donnell said a residency requirement wouldn't preclude speakers whose views differ from his.

"The point is there were people [speaking] at the meeting who were not from Sayville," he said. "It doesn’t mean that people from inside the district can’t speak. They can."

Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, said most Long Island boards allow people to speak regardless of where they live. She said residency restrictions might exclude business owners who live in a different school district or parents who don't live in their children's district.

"What we recommend to boards is, whatever your policy is, adhere to it," she said. "Make certain you apply it to everyone."

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