Riverhead school board refuses to release candidate names

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.

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