Photo: Adobe Stock

The Riverhead Board of Education owes the public an explanation.

The board, with the apparent acquiescence of district administrators and possibly even its legal counsel, seems to believe the Open Meetings Law doesn’t apply to them. I think the public deserves to know why.

On Tuesday night, board members openly admitted to having a closed door discussion — in “executive session” prior to the public meeting — about whether they would vote again that night on spending down the fund balance to provide sports programs.

The N.Y. State Open Meetings Law spells out the only topics that a public body may discuss in executive session. (See below.) And budget discussions are not on the list. Nor are discussions about changes to a published agenda.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened. In “executive session” Tuesday night — i.e. behind closed doors, in private, outside the view and hearing of the public — the Riverhead school board discussed whether or not to have another board vote on spending the district’s unallocated fund balance on sports programs.

And they agreed not to take a vote on that during Tuesday night’s meeting. They agreed they need more information in order to decide whether to have another board vote on the question. And they asked the interim superintendent to provide them with certain additional information so they could make that decision.

We know these things because they came out and said so in the public meeting. They didn’t say what information they believe they need or what they asked the interim superintendent to provide.

Seems they plan to get that information, debate it again — behind closed doors, one might fairly assume — and then tell the public what they’ve decided.

That’s not how it works, folks. The public has a right to know what they’re discussing and a right to hear that discussion. What they did violated the Open Meetings Law.

They’ve discussed this topic in public a few times already and voted on it once already. A majority of the board voted no at that time.

Trustee Chris Dorr, who’s been pushing for another board vote on funding school sports, volunteered the information about the closed-door discussion during the open meeting Tuesday. He told students in the audience, “We’ve decided to wait another meeting to receive more information.”

Board president Laurie Downs clarified how that decision came about. “[W]e all had a conversation in the — in executive session, and we came to the conclusion we’re gonna wait — get a little bit more information before we can vote on something,” she told a parent, who came to the school board meeting to ask about this topic.

Board member Virginia Healy added that the board has charged the interim superintendent to “run some other information for us and numbers so that we can make a more prudent decision.” She assured the parent, “We’re asking all the right questions.”

How is the public supposed to know they’re asking all the right questions? What information are they asking for?

Trustee Susan Koukounas said the public should be patient and give the board more time to get additional information. The board members understand, she said.

Do they? And we just need to take their word for it — why, exactly?

Even if the board members don’t care about brazenly violating the law — and very clearly, they do not — if nothing else, they ought to care about getting a budget passed.

Voters rejected the budget they proposed not once, but twice. And those resounding “no” votes came on the heels of the voters’ rejection of the capital bond proposal.

What does that say?

At the very heart of those rejections by the voters in this district is a lack of trust. The board may not want to hear this, but it’s true. And Ms. Downs, looking back on when she stood at the podium all those years, demanding openness and transparency from the board, knows in her heart this is true.

The board of education does not have the trust of the voters in this school district. And that mistrust extends to the district administration.

Right or wrong, deserved or undeserved, that is a fact.

And holding illegal closed-door discussions does not help establish trust with the voters, taxpayers and parents of this district. Period.

Now, in fairness to this particular crop of board members, this behavior is nothing new in Riverhead. The Riverhead school board has long behaved as if the N.Y. State Open Meetings Law did not apply to them. And time and again, I’ve called them out on it.

A former board president once told me “of course” the board discusses the agenda in executive session before it opens a public meeting. The board doesn’t want to “look look like a bunch of bumbling idiots,” she said.

As the very exasperated executive director of the N.Y. State Committee on Open Government told me at the time, “There are eight grounds for entering into executive session under the law. Discomfort is not one of them. Embarrassment is not one of them.”

RiverheadLOCAL actually brought him from Albany to Riverhead to conduct a session on the Open Meetings Law for school and town officials.

It was very well-attended, but it didn’t help.

The situation our district finds itself in right now — failed budgets, failed bond votes, upset and angry parents, dejected children — isn’t somebody else’s fault. It’s a direct result of the persistent lack of candor on display at every carefully scripted board meeting — of the board and a series of superintendents being consistently unwilling to give people straight answers to straight questions about subjects that are, in fact, the people’s business.

As with all things in life, you reap what you sow. And this untenable position they find themselves in right now has been sown over many years of evasive answers, occasional rudeness, secret discussions and — what has seemed to those of us on the outside looking in — outright cover-ups.

Patience? Trust? Forbearance? Those things must be earned. And so far, the school board has come up woefully short.

Below is the text of the Open Meetings Law section that spells out what may be properly discussed in executive session:

§105. Conduct of executive sessions.

  1. Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only, provided, however, that no action by formal vote shall be taken to appropriate public moneys:
    a. matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
    b. any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;
    c. information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
    d. discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
    e. collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law;
    f. 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;
    g. the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
    h. the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.

The Open Meetings Law is found in N.Y. Public Officers Law, Article 7. 

Read the law here

The legislative declaration is worth reading, because it explains why this matters:

It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy. The people must be able to remain informed if they are to retain control over those who are their public servants. It is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it.

The New York State School Boards Association has published a review of the open meetings law to explain these matters to school board members. 

The New York State Committee on Open Government publishes a booklet called “Your Right to Know.” 

We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

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.