By Tessa Raebeck
The Sag Harbor Board of Education’s narrow 4-3 decision last month to no longer include the public comment portions from the videos of its meetings broadcast on its website, LTV and SEA-TV, has raised criticism from a small but vocal segment of the school community.
The school board will continue to offer the two public input sessions at its meetings, and the rest of the public meetings will be recorded, with the tape starting after public input one, during which the public can address the board on issues related to the agenda, and stopping just prior to public input two, which is held at the end of the meeting and allows members of the public to bring up topics that are not on the agenda.
School board President Theresa Samot, who did not vote in support of the measure, said Wednesday, “The board has had no further discussion on the videotaping policy. At this point, videotaping is not an agenda item on our upcoming agenda.”
During a six-month trial period from July to December 2014, and much discussion prior to that, board members cited the legal advice of school attorney Thomas Volz, who members of the board said, initially recommended against taping altogether due to liability issues that could arise.
When reached by phone on Tuesday, January 20, Mr. Volz said he is not authorized by the district to speak on the topic.
While discussing the policy in December, school board member Sandi Kruel cited instances that occurred during the trial period in which she felt libelous or slanderous statements were made.
“They were derogatory comments about employees of the district or disparaging comments about the work that they did,” Ms. Kruel said Tuesday, referring to six specific interactions that were also observed by The Sag Harbor Express over the course of the trial period.
Although one example given by Ms. Kruel was of a parent applauding a particular administrator’s work, the others referred to specific criticisms of various aspects of the district, such as a particular academic department or community outreach tool.
One instance occurred during public input two on September 29, 2014, when a community member referred to a particular administrative position and questioned a raise given to that administrator, who was in attendance, asking the board and Superintendent Katy Graves several questions, including, “Why is this person so valuable? That’s what I want to get at.”
When asked about the criteria used to determine why the raise was needed, as well as, “How many years’ experience does this person have?” Ms. Graves replied, “When we start talking about an exact person and their exact raises and why we did those, then we’re talking about personnel issues.”
Administrators’ salary increases are public information, and in this case, the raise was included in an agenda issued by the board. However, the discussion of the employment history of a particular person, as well as matters leading to their appointment, employment or promotion, are to be conducted during executive sessions, rather than public meetings, under the New York State Open Meetings Law.
According to the district, the recording of that September 29 meeting is not available online for viewing “due to a technical issue.”
If that interaction had been recorded and broadcast, Ms. Kruel said, the board “would have had to pay the attorney $3,000 to tell me that I can’t broadcast it and then I would have gotten slapped with a Freedom of Information or freedom of speech lawsuit.”
Ms. Kruel added she would be fine with having public input one recorded, as it addresses agenda items, but that public input two often becomes a “forum for someone’s opinion to slander either the board or an employee of the district.”
“I think we worry about all kinds of things for no particularly good reason,” Robert Freeman, the executive director at New York’s Department of State Committee on Open Government, said on Tuesday. While the board is not legally required to record or broadcast its meetings, he said, “I would question the wisdom of limiting what is broadcast for a simple reason—any member of the public under the open meeting law has the right to audio record, video record, or broadcast an open meeting so long as the use of the equipment is not disruptive or obtrusive.”
“So, even though the board of education might not broadcast or even record the public commentaries, anybody else can, and anybody else who does so can post it on his or her own website. [The Sag Harbor Board of Education] can do what they’re doing, but again, I question the wisdom of the limitation.”
As required by a 2011 amendment to the Open Meetings Law, the school board has on several occasions welcomed others to record and broadcast the public meetings on their own, with the expressed intention of absolving the district from its liability concerns.
Mr. Freeman said concerns of libel lawsuits if the board were to broadcast a slanderous statement made by a member of the public are “wrong, because it’s a public forum. There are cases out of Long Island which indicate that what is said and heard during open meetings is public. Why would they be concerned?”
“The reality, at least in my opinion, is that the board gives itself a degree of protection if it records and plays the whole thing,” Mr. Freeman continued. “If they don’t, somebody can record a portion that [the board does] not and say that this is completely accurate, even though that may not be so.”
The fears of libel lawsuits are largely unfounded according to Mr. Freeman, but a non-legal concern remains: if the board records all public comments, it will inevitably televise statements that are, more often than not, negative reactions to both the board itself and to its employees.
“We’re the only school district in all of Suffolk County who have come in under the tax cap every single year. We have never decreased program, we have never laid off employees, we’ve actually increased program—and [people are] sitting here worrying about if we’re going to let you rip apart a school employee or another board member on video camera,” said Ms. Kruel.