06/28/14 5:00am
06/28/2014 5:00 AM
(Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)

Riverhead school board vice president Greg Meyer honoring Ann Cotten-DeGrasse Tuesday night. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)

Ann Cotten-DeGrasse was congratulated Tuesday night for six years of service on the board. She was hired as a business teacher by the district in 1966 and served as president for the Riverhead Central Faculty Association before retiring in 1997.

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03/28/14 9:00am
03/28/2014 9:00 AM
Riverhead Town Hall (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Riverhead Town Hall (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

As if journalists needed another reason to call for more open government, the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005 started Sunshine Week, a “national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”

Sunshine Week was actually last week, March 16-22. But this week has provided us with a couple of reminders about how various elected officials could easily improve their efforts to open up to the public.

It’s not exactly breaking news that Riverhead’s all-Republican Town Board meets in caucus from time to time. Precedent supports the legality of such meetings. Supervisor Sean Walter’s allegation that board members are discussing public business during the meetings, however — and the fact that board members are meeting so frequently — is noteworthy, as it appears to fly in the face of state open meetings laws.

RELATED STORY: ‘SUPE TAKES AIM AT CLOSED-DOOR MEETINGS AMONG BOARD MEMBERS

Board members who attend the caucus meetings, as well as the current Riverhead Republican Committee chairman, deny the allegations, describing the meetings as discussions about the political impact of board members’ decisions and not the decisions themselves.

The timing the supervisor picked to bring all of this to light could be considered curious. He’s suffered the loss of a few votes on the public stage recently — likely stemming from discussions during these caucuses — so this could be construed as a political counter-punch. But there’s really no way for the public to know the whole truth unless the all-Republican Town Board stops meeting in caucus. And the only way to accomplish that, it would seem, would be to diversify the party affiliations of Town Board members.

Meanwhile, in the school district, a couple of instances this past week show room for improvement as well.

Superintendent Nancy Carney gave a thorough presentation Tuesday night about a $4 million bond proposal now set to go before voters in May, after which the school board voted to adopt it as a ballot proposition. But the proposal had never been publicly discussed at any previous school board meeting.

Without speaking on the merits of the bond itself, one might think these publicly elected officials — albeit volunteers — would want to inform and seek input from their constituents before setting the stage to borrow $4 million.

And following the presentation, it raises eyebrows to see a unanimous vote on such a costly plan without any discussion whatsoever — between members of the public and the school board or within the school board itself.

RELATED COVERAGE FROM TUESDAY NIGHT’S SCHOOL BOARD MEETING

Another note from Tuesday night: The school board approved a plan to spend $456,000 from the district’s capital reserve fund right after closing a public hearing on the matter. While it’s not uncommon for public boards to adopt more mundane measures immediately following a public hearing, voters deserve more time to weigh in on $456,000 in expenses for a fund they voted to create.

So, in all, the school board may spend about $4.5 million with little public discussion or input from the people being asked to come up with the money.

If taxpayers in the town and school district feel they’re being increasingly marginalized when it comes to big decisions — and their leaders are opting to keep them out of the discussion to avoid headaches, slowdowns or the outright blockage of measures — then the public’s only recourse is to demand change through their votes.

03/06/14 5:00pm
03/06/2014 5:00 PM

schoolsSix local school board incumbents are up for re-election this year. So far, one has said she’ll step down after her term, two are on the fence about appearing on the May 20 ballot and another two are gearing up to run again. One board member was unavailable for comment. To gain a spot on the ballot, candidates must submit their petitions by April 21, under state law.

RIVERHEAD (3 SEATS)

Three of the seven seats on the Riverhead Board of Education will be up for grabs in May.

Board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse announced last year during her campaign for town supervisor that she will not seek re-election at the end of her second term. A retired teacher who taught in the district for more than 30 years, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse is a former president of the teachers union in Riverhead and a co-founding member of the North Fork Breast Health Coalition. The Jamesport resident was first elected to the school board in 2008.

Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said in a previous interview that she decided not to seek another term on the board because she feels that she’s accomplished what she intended. “My goals were to bring civility and respect back to the board and to see that the bond passed,” she said. “I did the two things I really set out to do and I’m ready to move on.”

Board vice president Greg Meyer confirmed last week that he will seek another three-year term. Mr. Meyer, a Calverton resident, was first elected in 2008. He’s employed as a firefighter and emergency medical technician at Brookhaven National Lab.

When asked if he’s interested in becoming board president given Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse’s decision, Mr. Meyer said, “We’ll have to see what the board decides.

“I enjoy what I’m doing and believe the progress the board has made in the last six years has been terrific,” he said.

Board member Kimberly Ligon said last week she hasn’t decided if she’ll seek re-election. She was first elected in 2011.

SHOREHAM-WADING RIVER (3 SEATS)

Incumbents Bill McGrath, John Zukowski and Jack Costas are up for re-election to the seven-member board. Mr. McGrath, who was elected in 2008 and has been board president since 2011, said last week he hasn’t decided if he’ll seek another three-year term. As the budget season unfolds, Mr. McGrath, of Wading River, said he’s focused on helping to draft next year’s spending plan.

Mr. Zukowski, an attorney who was first elected in 2011, said last week that he plans to run for re-election. Mr. Costas wasn’t immediately available for comment.