Cartoon by Don Landgren courtesy of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

I can’t in good conscience let “Sunshine Week” draw to a close without commenting on the proceedings of the Riverhead Board of Education, which behaves as if the state’s Open Meetings Law doesn’t apply to it.

It does — but they still pretty much ignore it.

In a July 2011 interview, Riverhead school board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse openly admitted that the board discusses its business behind closed doors.

“As long as I have been on the board and I’m sure long before me, there was always an opportunity in executive session for board members to ask questions and get clarifications,” Cotten-DeGrasse told me in an interview. Cotten-DeGrasse was responding at the time to criticism by former board president Angela DeVito, who said the board “has a lot of its discussions behind closed doors.”

“We do that so we don’t go out there in public and look like a bunch of bumbling idiots,” Cotten-DeGrasse explained. “I don’t think you’ll find a board of ed anywhere that doesn’t do that,” she said.

Maybe so, but it’s still illegal, Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government told me.

“The Open Meetings Law is short and it is easy to understand,” Freeman said. “There are eight grounds for entering into executive session under the law,” he said. “Discomfort is not one of them,” Freeman said. “Embarrassment is not one of them.”

Freeman, who has headed up the state agency charged with interpreting and applying New York’s Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws since their inception in the early 1970s, said he has little patience for excuses offered by officials for disregarding these laws.

“The law has been in effect now for nearly 35 years,” Freeman said. “Case law is absolutely clear. There is no excuse in 2011 for a board wanting to hold closed meetings because of their fear of appearing unprepared, ignorant or unknowledgeable.”

True that. And it’s no less true in 2014. But things haven’t changed with how the school board conducts its business; and I’m sorry to say I haven’t done enough to press for them to change.

In the spring of 2012, RiverheadLOCAL hosted an open government forum at the Riverhead public library. We brought the open government guru himself, Bob Freeman, down from Albany to speak and answer any questions. I invited every town and school district official to attend — including every member of the Riverhead Board of Education. Town government was very well represented, with 20 town officials in attendance. School government? One school board member, Willie Hsiang, and an assistant superintendent came to the meeting.

Right or wrong, I’ve always willing to give school board members more leeway than the “professional” town officials. School board members are volunteers, after all, and I’ve been loathe to get on their case about open meeting law compliance.

At best that makes me an enabler; at worst, I’m an accessory to illegal conduct.

To be clear, I don’t have any reason to believe the Riverhead school board has anything to hide. But I also don’t understand why they act like they do. Except, as the school board president said, they don’t want to “look like a bunch of bumbling idiots.”

Be that as it may, their closed-door discussions — the “executive sessions” where the real work apparently gets done — mean that the official meetings themselves are generally devoid of any meaningful discussion or debate. The official meetings are reduced to presentations, dog-and-pony shows and formal votes. The board is simply going through the motions for the sake of a public show.

A few not-so-shining examples:

meeting in executive session with organizers of a proposed new charter school;

developing the district’s budget nine-figure operating budget behind closed doors;

discussing and authorizing the elimination of teacher and teacher’s aides positions behind closed doors;

discussing the district’s independent auditor’s report, or listening to the audit committee’s report on the audit, behind closed doors.

The alternative to closed-door deliberations of the above is no discussion at all, which, frankly, is even scarier.

In short, the Riverhead Board of Education makes the Riverhead Town Board — party caucuses and all — look like a shining beacon of light. 

 

Yesterday:  When is a closed-door town board meeting exempt from the Open Meetings law?

Tomorrow:  Is open government an attainable goal? And does it really even matter?

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Denise Civiletti is the editor and copublisher of RiverheadLocal.com. An award-winning community journalist, she is an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman (1988-1991); she lives in Riverhead with her husband and business partner, Peter Blasl and their two college-student daughters. The views expressed in her blog are hers alone.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.