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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 3, 2008

Prez tells why protesters weren’t allowed public forum

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Citizens were clearly frustrated Tuesday night when the school board president told them they couldn’t speak in public about two teachers they wanted to defend.

It turns out board members were frustrated, too.

“Unfortunately,” said board President Richard Weisz yesterday, “people are not willing to give institutions the benefit of the doubt while they let processes work out. It’s disappointing when people confuse adhering to rules and process with rejecting viewpoints.”

Tuesday night, Weisz told the crowd, “If you refer to someone by name, we take that in executive session…I’m supposed to gavel you if you talk about a personnel item.”

“By law, we have to protect confidentiality in personnel matters,” Vice President John Dornbush told The Enterprise yesterday.

Not so, says Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. “They ought to know they don’t have to go into executive session,” Freeman said. “They had the right to discuss the entirety of the issue in public,” he said.

“It’s part of the ‘Personnel Myth’,” Freeman said, adding that if people repeat things enough times, they come to believe it is true. “It drives me crazy,” he said.

Freeman went on, “The law says a board may enter executive session. The board is absolutely free to discuss the issue in public.”

Weisz, a lawyer, said the Guilderland board has made its own rules, as allowed by law.

“We did want information,” he said. “Our rules are, we can’t take personnel information in public.”

He explained the reason for the rule: “No one knows what someone stepping up to a microphone will say. It could be true or false, positive or negative.”

The board met with 15 people over two-and-a-half hours of executive session, he said. “We got a lot of information.”

He went on, “The rules are designed to protect everybody….I don’t know what we could have done differently without breaking our own rules.”

Public comment

As far as allowing the public to speak at a meeting, the state’s Open Meetings Law says nothing about that right. The law states that the public has the right to attend, observe, and listen to an elected board. The board can adopt its own rules about allowing the public to speak.

The Guilderland School Board allows public comment at the beginning and end of every meeting and does not allow comment on named individuals.

Several years ago, when there were allegations about a coach calling her players “sluts,” the board allowed public comment in favor of the coach and then learned it should also allow comment critical of her.

Freeman said that, according to federal case law, “If praiseworthy comments regarding staff are permitted, the board must also permit critical comments. It’s their choice.”

Weisz said most of the people who talked in executive session Tuesday night were students and they were “incredibly articulate.” Weisz said, “I’m very proud we produce these kinds of kids.

“It was frustrating,” he said, of not hearing the comments in public. “We do want to hear from people. We encourage that. That rule is there for a reason.”

It is frustrating for the board not to be able to tell the public information that must be kept confidential to protect employees, said Dornbush. “One party can disclose whatever they want, whether it’s factual or not. They can talk to the press…and they can be heard. The board of education is not permitted to speak on the other side of an issue.

“Personnel matters are sometimes very, very complicated and don’t revolve around just one person, or two, or three….One person saying, ‘I waive my right to privacy’ doesn’t allow us to disclose in public. We end up looking like the bad guys and don’t have any legal way to tell another side of the story.”

Dornbush concluded, “The board of education is looking at this and we understand it’s a very, very serious situation. It’s extremely complicated. I wish I were at liberty to speak. The law is what I have to follow. It’s there to protect people. I took an oath I would follow the…constitution…and fulfill my duties to the best of my ability.”

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