Judge rejects former Riverhead administrator’s lawsuit

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | Michael Ivanoff at the Jan. 11 Riverhead school board meeting.

Former Riverhead School District administrator Michael Ivanoff’s  lawsuit seeking to have the school board resolution to fire him voided on the grounds that the board did not comply with State Open Meetings Law was rejected by a state Supreme Court judge last week.

Mr. Ivanoff was fired on Jan. 11, 2011 from his position as assistant superintendent for finance and operations after receiving a letter from Superintendent Nancy Carney in December saying she was recommending his termination.

School officials never publicly explained why Mr. Ivanoff was fired from the $175,000 position, saying it is a personnel decision that they cannot discuss in public. At the time, he was replaced by Joseph Singleton, who was paid $800 a day to act an an interim in the position.

Mr. Ivanoff at the time pointed out that both the internal and external audits done by auditors hired by the district, and an audit by the state Comptroller’s office, gave positive reports on the district’s finances during his time as its chief finance officer.

His lawsuit, however, challenged only the fact that the school board had not properly convened an executive session prior to the meeting at which he was fired, and at two subsequent meetings. He sought to have all actions taken at these meetings nullified because they were not held in accord with New York State Open Meetings Law.  Under state law, he argued, the school board must first have an open session meeting and vote publicly to go into executive session, which he says it did not on Jan. 11.

In an interview at the time, Mr. Ivanoff told The News-Review that the school board frequently discussed items in executive session that by law should be discussed in public.

His lawsuit asked that the court direct all members of the school board to attend training on the Open Meetings Law, and that the court award him whatever “relief” it deems proper, including legal fees and costs associated with filing the lawsuit.

In response to the lawsuit, the school district “appears to concede that the board did not properly convene a public meeting prior to immediately recessing to executive session,” the judge’s ruling stated.

Mr. Ivanoff, reached by phone Friday, said “the judge even says that they were violating the Open Meetings Law, which is what I was trying to show.”

He had no further comment on the decision.

But the district argued that even if it did follow the proper procedures, it was “inadvertent, technical and non-prejudicial,” and that its practice “was instituted as a convenience to both the board and the public.”

The district claimed in court papers that the practice has since been corrected.

State Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley Jr., in his decision issued July 28, wrote, “although petitioner (Mr. Ivanoff) claimed to be aggrieved by the board’s failure to properly convene the meeting at which his employment was terminated, the record reflects that the outcome would not have been any different had the board complied with the open meetings law.”

He said no one else has come forward to object to the board’s procedure, and that Mr. Ivanoff failed to show good reason to annul the board’s action.

Because of this, the judge denied Mr. Ivanoff’s petition.

Ms. Carney did not respond to calls seeking comment on the ruling.

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