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Will Buffalo board agree to interview, discuss candidates publicly?

It was deja vu all over again Wednesday night when Buffalo Board of Ed  President Ralph Hernandez mentioned during a committee meeting that he thinks the board the interviews of candidates for the East District seat should be done in public. (Interviews will be held during a special board meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday in Room 801, City Hall.)

Kane Chief of Staff Jim Kane (at left) had almost the identical reaction he had when I requested the full list of the names of the candidates earlier this week. To paraphrase (slightly): "We can't do that. We've never done it that way before in this district."

(For more details on how that played out last night, check out the full story.)

Here's a snippet of the conversation:

“You’re going to do the interviews in public?” Kane asked.

“Sure,” Hernandez responded.

“That would be a first,” Kane said. "We've never done that before in this district."

Gosh, if that line of thinking had prevailed, the schools never would have been integrated.

Robert_J_Freeman Bob Freeman (at right), executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, says that the interviews should, in fact, be conducted in open session. The important point is that the board is filling a vacancy for elective office, Freeman says. Normally, these people would conduct public campaigns, spread their message to residents, and the voters would decide who gets to sit at the board table.

"If you choose to run for office, you throw your hat in the ring, with spotlights on it," he said.

There is exactly one legal case in New York State that directly relates to the situation at hand -- a board deliberating over who should fill a vacancy -- and the judge ruled that those deliberations needed to be done in public. Here's a portion of the judge's ruling (which was upheld on appeal):

"...respondents' reliance on the portion of Section 105(1)(f) which states that a Board in executive session may discuss the 'appointment...of a particular person...' is misplaced. In this Court's opinion, given the liberality with which the law's requirements of openness are to be interpreted (Holden v. Board of Trustees of Cornell Univ., 80 AD2d 378) and given the obvious importance of protecting the voter's franchise this section should be interpreted as applying only to employees of the municipality and not to appointments to fill the unexpired terms of elected officials. Certainly, the matter of replacing elected officials, should be subject to public input and scrutiny" (Gordon v. Village of Monticello, Supreme Court, Sullivan County, January 7, 1994), modified on other grounds, 207 AD 2d 55 (1994)].

Freeman says that ruling applies to the board's discussion of the candidates as well as the interviews themselves.

Jacobs Chris Jacobs (at left), the board member who chairs the committee responsible for the process of filling the seat, says the board will get an opinion from its attorney and will decide next week whether the interviews and deliberations will be held publicly.

Jacobs expressed concerns Wednesday that if the deliberations are held in public, some of the board members' honest assessments could prove to be embarrassing to some candidates. Maybe that's true. But state law does not list "avoiding embarrassment" as a valid reason to enter executive session.

What will prevail: past practice -- or open government?

We'll find out next week.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at mpasciak@buffnews.com or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter. Check out the Buffalo News' education page at www.buffalonews.com/schools.

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee | djgee@buffnews.com


Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes | tlankes@buffnews.com


Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone | stan@buffnews.com


Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB | dswilliams@buffnews.com

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