Rhea Vogel of New City filed complaints about three Clarkstown Board of Education meetings with the New York State on December 8. Vogel said she felt the action was necessary.
“There was an ongoing pattern of improperly convened executive sessions,” said Vogel, a former board member. “And there were just meetings not accessible to the public. It seemed to me they were doing things that were prohibiting people to access these meetings.”
The three meetings Vogel is seeking opinions on whether they violated the Open Meetings Law (OML) were held on October 25, November 3 and November 22, 2011. In addition to her requests for advisory opinions, other materials concerning the October 25 and November 3 meetings were sent by different residents.
“Several community members signed affidavits indicating that they were aggrieved in ways that were described in the complaint,” said Vogel.
She said she did not seek others to provide affidavits regarding the November 22 meeting.
In her documents concerning the October 25 and November 3 meetings Vogel claimed both violated the OML.
“It is our view that The Clarkstown Board of Education President Douglas Katz, has in scheduling the last two board meetings, intentionally failed to accommodate the large number of members of the public wishing to attend and participate at these meetings in violation of the OML.”
Vogel noted the October 25 meeting’s agenda included a Skype presentation by the special education evaluator, who the district was considering to hire. Earlier in the year, Clarkstown had been identified as a “school district in need of improvement” because of a decrease in state test scores.
Parents had expressed interest in the issue at prior meetings and members of the district’s teachers’ union were encouraged to attend the meeting, which was held in the conference room where the school board regularly holds its sessions. An overflow room was set up with a video feed. Vogel said the effort and planning were inadequate given the interest in the special education evaluator that been previously displayed by parents and other community members.
“The Board of Education had advance notice that this was going to be a well attended meeting yet they didn’t move it,” she said. “And certainly there’s no lack or shortage of places where you could move a meeting in this district. We have many buildings and several auditoriums. So it seemed to me it was a willful decision on their part and warranted a complaint.”
Vogel noted other agenda items were also of interest including the board’s anticipated vote to hire a consultant to search for a new superintendent of schools and discussion about setting hourly wages for retired teaching assistants who substituted in the schools.
Her complaint about the November 3 special meeting focused on the status of the community, which was still dealing with the effects of the late October snowstorm that knocked out power throughout Clarkstown and the county and closed schools for several days. The purpose of the morning meeting was a vote to confer the benefits of State Education Law to provide paid legal counsel for Katz and former board President Phil DeGaetano. Petitions had been filed with the State Education Commissioner seeking their removal as trustees.
“Given the displacement of residents and the disruption of communication channels, many people who would have otherwise attended this meeting were either unaware of it or unable to attend. Given the controversial nature of the agenda, Mr. Katz had every reason to want to limit public involvement at this meeting.”
Vogel attached copies of news articles to substantiate her complaint, as well as Facebook postings and website discussions on issues raised by parents and community members. Her packet of materials numbered about 150 pages.
Vogel’s request for an advisory opinion on the Nov. 22, 2011 meeting held in the Clarkstown South High School principal’s conference room questioned whether that meeting which was publicized as an Executive Session fell within the criteria of what can be appropriately discussed at an Executive Session.
“Based on the foregoing, it is my belief that Clarkstown Board of Education President Douglas Katz willfully, intentionally and with forethought listed this meeting using language that would effectively discourage the public from attending, scheduled the meeting in a space so small it would be impossible for the public to attend, improperly acquired votes from a majority of the Board to ensure the immediate convening of an Executive Session, and knowingly entered into an Executive Session to discuss matters that are not within the scope of what is legally allowed under the OML.”
When another board member questioned Katz and Board Attorney Warren Berbit at the last meeting about whether copies of the complaints had been received their answers were vague. A follow-up request made to Katz about the status of the materials has not received a response.
Vogel said she received notice from the Committee on Open Government that her requests had been sent to the appropriate parties. She does not expect to get a response or written advisory from the committee for another month or two. Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, spoke about the Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law at a Clarkstown PTSA presentation in January.