Riverhead school board refuses to release candidate names

07/22/2011 1:05 PM |

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | School board president Ann Cotton-Degrasse at a board meeting earlier this year.

A full week since the filing deadline for those hoping to fill a vacant seat on the Riverhead school board, district officials are refusing to release candidate names — or even discuss the matter publicly.

The board is seeking to replace former board member Angela DeVito, who unexpectedly stepped down at a meeting last month during a heated debate over the $78.3 million bond proposition for school buildings and grounds upgrades. Ms. Devito’s term expires on June 30, 2012.

The deadline for applications to fill the vacated seat was last Friday, July 15.

The board already approved scheduling the bond proposal vote Tuesday for Oct. 11, but a new board member could be instrumental during teacher contract negotiations later this year.

The current teacher contract is set to expire June 30, 2012.

Board president Ann Cotten-Degrasse said the school’s legal counsel has advised that the board could decline to divulge the names of those who submitted applications for the vacant seat.

“That’s one of the things listed as why we can go into executive session,” said Ms. Cotten-Degrasse, a retired teacher and a former president of Riverhead’s teacher’s union.

According to New York State Open Meetings Laws, school board members can discuss “the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation,” in executive session.

But Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said in Riverhead’s case the names of those seeking the school board seat are public information, because the board is discussing appointing someone to a publicly elected position.

“There is no doubt [the names] would have to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law,” he said plainly. “The funny thing is, when people run for office, don’t they usually [want] to make their names known?”

A co-author of New York’s Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Protection laws, Mr. Freeman, who is also an Albany lawyer, has served the New York State government by interpreting those laws and issuing some 17,000 of advisory opinions for over 35 years, according to his Albany Law School biography. He teaches classes on public access to government information at the school.

Mr. Freeman said some might wrongly interpret the language of the law as saying the appointment of officials could be discussed in executive session. But as per a Sullivan County Court ruling in 1994, all discussion regarding elected officials — by a school board or any type of municipality — should be held in open session, he said. That decision was upheld in the Apellate Division.

“Given the obvious importance of protecting the voter’s franchise, this section should be interpreted as applying only to employees of the municipality and not to appointments to fill the unexpired terms of elected officials,” states Mr. Freeman’s official opinion on the matter.

Superintendent Nancy Carney declined to weigh in on the issue after Tuesday’s meeting, saying the decision on whether or not to release the names was up to the board.

When told of Mr. Freeman’s opinion Friday, Ms. Cotten-Degrasse said “that’s his opinion. I’m going by our [attorney's].”

Mr. Cotten-Degrasse declined to say what criteria the board would use to select its candidate, other than to say they are looking for a “good person.”

The News-Review has submitted a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request seeking the names of the candidates, as well their answers to a survey the board is rumored to have issued to each of them.

District officials confirmed receipt of the request Friday, though it has not yet been answered.

Former school board member Chrissy Prete agreed with Mr. Freeman that what the current board is doing is against the law.

Instead, Ms. Prete, who lost a bid for reelection in 2010, suggested making the candidate names public and holding a special election in October when the district hosts a vote on the $78.3 million infrastructure bond.

She admitted that, even when she was a member the board in the past frequently discussed issues in executive session that should have discussed publicly.

“This is absurd. Yes, they have the right to appoint, but in all fairness to the public, [it should be public information,]” she said.

School board vice president Greg Meyer referred all comments on the decision not to release the names to Ms. Cotton-Degrasse. He did say, however, he was very pleased with the pool of candidates to choose from.

“I’m very excited with the candidates,” he said. “We have a great group.”

Board member Amelia Lantz declined to comment on the matter.

“We have a policy that we ask everyone to go through [Ms. Cotton-Degrasse],” she said.

vchinese@timesreview.com

123 Comment

  • Why is the school board always hiding things from the public?

  • Because Ann Cotton-Degrasse is the founder of and a shill for the teachers union in the RSD.

    Her goal is to extract as much money from local families (taxpayers), regardless of how much pain it causes, in order to further enrich teachers with average salaries and benefits that far exceed both the median household income in our area, and the real market value of “educators”.

    She will appoint someone who will give the unions a nice, luxurious deal in the next contract, at the cost of residents and students alike. Please don’t be naive enough to think Ann Cotton-Degrasse is actually going to represent anyone but the union.

  • Chrissy Pete? Now there’s a creditable source. Who next? Angela Devito or perhaps Diane Scricca?

  • Not only do I want to know who they, I want to know what connections they and their families have to teachers and the union.

  • So now the NewsReview removes public comments. Freedom of speech must not be allowed here. Very sad especially when the comments are the 100% truth! What a shame this paper should want to expose the illegal act of the school board but instead you cover it up! Very nice thanks for censoring people who speak the truth!

  • District Counsel advises the BOE- what was most probably said was that the BOE could choose not to release the names of potential replacement candidates. Now that does not mean that the BOE MUST act in that manner- in this instance they are choosing to hide information from the public with the flimsy veil of Council’s opinion, regardless of what the body of law has offered. Consider, during regular election times candidates file a request through signed petitions with the District Clerk’s office, who then publishes/presents the names as the BOE meeting following close of the petition filing date. Each candidate is requested to appear before the public and make a statement on behalf of his or her candidacy. And then after all the posters, ads in newspapers, planes carrying banners, and heavy community lobbying by RCFA and and their BOE allies, the public casts their ballots and elects its representatives. Why bastardize the process for a replacement??? The District Clerk should have taken candidate letters of interest, the BOE should have entered the names into the public record either as an information item or as a resolution, and then the candidates should have been interviewed publically by the BOE at either a special meeting or at a regular business meeting. The RCSD community needs to know something about the candidates, not just what currently elected officials believe they need to know. The public deserves to know what questions are being asked of potential candidates and how answers are evaluated. Rumor has it that the BOE president has already contacted the candidates and asked some questions of each- like will he or she vote yes on the bond, and will he or she run for the next available 3-year term- the fact that these rumors are circulating can mean only one thing – the BOE president and perhaps others have acted in an unethical manner, and in their own self interest, a violation of their oath of office. Suggestion: hold the interviews in a public forum to salvage what little credibility remains with this BOE.