By Kathryn G. Menu
The resignation of Sag Harbor School Board member Gregg Schiavoni — the second board member to step down in less than a year — was attributed to a number of concerns, chief among them his belief that “75 percent of the executive session agenda dialogue” should be held in public and not behind closed doors.
In the aftermath of a sharply worded letter Schiavoni submitted to the board as his resignation, members appear divided on whether the public body has, in fact, violated Open Meetings Law or abused executive session privilege.
Public bodies can only discuss very specific issues in closed session, including matters that imperil public safety, that would identify a law enforcement agent or informer or an investigation, discussions about litigation, collective negotiations, acquisitions or the lease or sale of property, 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.
“I have not witnessed a specific moment where that has happened, but what does happen sometimes is an agenda is partly in executive session and partly in open session and would be on both agendas,” said board president Theresa Samot on Tuesday, adding any discussion not specifically considered protected, and any votes, were held in public session.
“When in doubt, I check with the attorney and for any board member it is their responsibility to bring that forward, ask the attorney, and ask the board bring the discussion into an open meeting,” said Samot who believes the Sag Harbor School Board does air on the side of caution. “We try to keep the executive session agenda very limited to those specific issues that are protected. The role is for us to deliberate and vote in open sessions.”
A request under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to see copies of all executive session agendas since September 2012 was not fulfilled as of press time.
Board member Sandi Kruel said she believed the board adhered to executive session rules and said district attorney Tom Volz is available prior to and during some sessions if a question arises about whether something should be public.
Board member Chris Tice deferred comment to Samot.
Board member Sue Kinsella, who was appointed to take Walter Wilcoxen’s board seat, did not return a call for comment. Wilcoxen left the board in July, declining to take his oath of office after being re-elected to the board.
Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso also backed the board.
“Normally, we are very good about making sure we get legal and expert opinion in terms of what is appropriate or not,” he said.
Dr. Bonuso said in some of the topics Schiavoni cited in his letter as being inappropriate for executive session — school calendar, for example — “we are talking about contract or individual work or seeking a legal interpretation.”
In terms of the calendar, Dr. Bonuso said the board was furnished with legal parameters in which to have a discussion about snow days, and said the board discussed those parameters in public session.
He added those very topics, like discussions about LandTek, an athletic field construction company — also cited in the Schiavoni letter — were issues heavily debated in public session.
“Eventually, in both cases, my recommendation was modified, so there was some honest conversation happening in the public,” said Dr. Bonuso.
Samot agreed with Dr. Bonuso that in cases like the school calendar, it was on an executive session agenda so the board could understand its legal options, in terms of whether or not it could use staff days and how many calendar days it needed for the school year. Some other pieces of the executive session discussion on the calendar related to a union contract, she said.
Board member Ed Drohan declined comment, although he added, “I don’t want that to infer in any way that I don’t agree with him, or I do agree with him.”
The most outspoken member since Schiavoni’s resignation has been former board president Mary Anne Miller, who this week said she agreed with Schiavoni’s claims, and vowed to be more vocal on her positions as a school board member.
“This year, I have reached out to the president and the superintendent expressing my concern and discomfort about executive agendas that in my opinion listed items that did not belong there,” said Miller. “I have consistently and repeatedly asked for clarification.”
Miller, who is attending a state sponsored conference on Open Meetings Law next week, said there were a number of occasions where the board would be engaged in a legitimate conversation about a specific personnel matter, but then “grey areas” would emerge where she felt the discussion should be public.
Both Miller and Schiavoni said they raised these issues with the rest of the board.
Issues like the school calendar, LandTek, the position of the Athletic Director — not directly related to personnel — and YARD (Youth Advocacy and Resource Development) were examples of issues where Miller and Schiavoni felt some discussions behind closed doors should have been held in public.
This week, Schiavoni raised an instance where he said a straw poll on a coaching position was conducted in executive session.
“Maybe it was to make sure we were all on the same page, that we all agree,” he said. “I don’t think we need to all agree. That is where the discussions are good, and maybe we all end up somewhere in the middle.”
However, said Schiavoni, there were times where a difference of opinion was not tolerated.
“Different opinions are fine, they are good, but when you are unwilling to listen to both sides of an issue, I do think that is harmful,” he said. “Sometimes when I went to meetings it would almost seem like decisions were already made before we even talked about them. That is how I felt, at least.”
Miller said in one instance, she felt the board adjourned into executive session because she was going to vote against the majority on a contract issue. By the time the board came into open session, Miller said she sided with the majority “to keep the peace,” a decision she now regrets.
“My difficulty is it is against the law, first and foremost,” said Miller of any executive session breach. “Second of all, I just don’t see the need. The conversations are not as rich or valuable as they would be if we were having them in front of our community and administrators.”
Miller said this is not to say debate doesn’t occur, with good results, in the public sphere. She cited a very public debate about student accident insurance last year that was heated, “but good and I was on the wrong side of that debate.”
As to a board agreement to allow only Samot and Dr. Bonuso to serve as the public voice of the board outside of board meetings, particularly when it involves the press, Miller said she can no longer in good conscience follow that model.
“I think we do have a responsibility to our public to let them know, in all instances, what we think about the issues,” said Miller.
On Tuesday, Samot said the board agreed to allow her and Dr. Bonuso to serve as spokespeople, not unusual for a board. She added the public opinions of board members are available in public session and also through the board’s minutes, which are public documents.