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Lessons from the East District

Today's story looks at some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans underlying the eight-person competition to fill the Ferry District seat on the Board of Education.

Before the board votes tonight on that appointment, it would be worthwhile to review a short history lesson.

It's been only five months since the last time the board had to appoint someone to a vacancy.

Vivian Evans spent the last third of 2010 representing her East District constituents from Maryland, where she had moved at the end of July. When she finally resigned in December, the board needed to go about filling that seat.

Let's take a minute or two to revisit how that went down.

Apparently, past practice in Buffalo had been for the board to interview candidates behind closed doors and select a candidate behind closed doors.

Remember when board President Ralph Hernandez mentioned that he planned to conduct the interviews in public? Here was the exchange he had during a public meeting this winter with Chief of Staff Jim Kane, regarding the interviews for that East District seat:

“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."

Well, it was a first. To everybody's credit, the board did, in fact, conduct those interviews in public.

(And while we're at it, let's give some more credit where it's due. Back in January, when I asked for the list of East District candidates' names a few days before the application deadline, Kane initially turned me down. This time around, with the Ferry District candidates, he has been entirely forthcoming when I've asked for information.)

So the good news is that, regarding releasing candidate information and conducting candidate interviews, the board is in full compliance with state laws. And that's progress here in Buffalo.

What's also worth pointing out is that when I talked in January to Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, here's what he said:

Bob Freeman, 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.

Let's repeat that one. The ruling applies to the board's discussion of the candidates. Meaning those discussions should be conducted in open session.

Back in January, while the board did conduct its interviews in public, it did not conduct its deliberations in public.

Tonight, the board is expected to appoint someone to the Ferry District seat.

Let's see whether the board will continue to repeat the past -- or continue to make strides toward open government.

- Mary Pasciak

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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 | [email protected]


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 | [email protected]


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 | [email protected]


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 | [email protected]

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