By Amanda Wyatt
The Sag Harbor School Board will appoint an interim board member rather than host a special election to fill the seat recently vacated by long time board member Walter Wilcoxen. The decision was made at a highly anticipated August 13 board meeting in front of an audience of roughly 30 members of the community who came to hear how the vacancy would be filled, as well as offer input on the process.
At the suggestion of Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, the school board opted to hold a public meet-the-candidates forum in the coming weeks to determine which of seven prospective candidates they would appoint.
“It’s a way to introduce all the candidates to the public and ask everybody the same questions, and not only have the board hear from the candidates, but the public, as well,” said President Theresa Samot in an interview.
She noted the board is currently in the process of choosing a convenient date and time for both the candidates and the current board members.
“My guess is it’s probably going to be a couple of weeks before we can find a date that works for everyone,” Samot said.
In the past month, the board has received letters of interest from seven individuals: Marian Cassata, Stephen Clarke, David Diskin, Tom Gleeson, Jonathan Glynn, Susan Kinsella and Thomas Re. The person appointed will serve roughly a nine-month term, until a regular election is held in May 2013.
While the decision to appoint a candidate was unanimous, it came after an initial vote on the possibility of holding a special election. Samot and Ed Drohan originally voted in favor of an election, while Kruel, Gregg Schiavoni and Vice President Chris Tice opposed the motion.
Although board member Mary Anne Miller was absent from the meeting, she did announce via email that she supported holding a special election. However, New York State Law requires an individual to be present at a board meeting in order for his/her vote to be counted.
For Schiavoni, deciding between an election and an appointment was dependent upon how many candidates planned to run.
If all or most of the seven candidates had decided to run, “I would lean toward an election,” he said early in the meeting. “But if it’s, say, three or less, I would do the appointment.”
Prompted by Schiavoni’s question, the board took an informal survey of candidates present at the meeting and discovered that only three were certain they would run.
At the same time, a number of community members had encouraged the Sag Harbor School Board to elect, rather than appoint, its new member. During the public input of the board meeting, several people spoke out in favor of an election, including Diane Hewett, who presented the board with a petition of over 300 signatures.
While audience member Thomas Jones said he was sympathetic to the “unfortunate situation” the board was in, he warned that appointing someone could cause the distrust in the community.
“Don’t appoint someone, because you’re going to get arrows thrown at you. Big time,” he said.
Upon hearing public input, several board members expressed their frustration with what they believed was an unfair depiction of the board in the petition and in the media.
“The decision to [elect or appoint] would be easier if there was an accurate portrayal of the situation by the political activists who are stirring the pot,” Drohan said.
Kruel agreed: “I sit here every other Monday night…because I care about children, not because I want daggers thrown at me, jabs made at me in the newspaper or comments made as I walk down the street—or even to my children, which has occurred.”
At the meeting, Tice explained that the district had been in contact with the New York State School Board Association to find out what other boards do in similar situations. They discovered that most school boards rarely hold special elections because voter turnouts for these tend to be significantly lower than for regular elections.
“Even in communities that have a large voter turnout, when they have special elections they may get 20 percent of their normal turnout,” Tice said. “It’s not really representative of the community.”
Kruel added that the Bridgehampton School Board recently appointed a previous candidate to the board after one of its members suddenly resigned last month.
Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the Sag Harbor School Board seat will be filled anytime soon. Samot said that depending on the availability of the board and of the candidates, a decision might not be made until September.