The school board held a closed-door meeting last week that may have violated New Jersey open meetings law. School board members went into a closed session to deliberate on filling a vacancy on the board, but ended up discussing whether to hold a community forum to present the three finalists of the superintendent search.
“They can’t discuss in executive session anything they do not list on the motion or the resolution,” said Walter Luers, attorney for the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG), an advocacy group with the mission to protect and expand public access to government records and meetings. “It’s a violation.”
School board president Oshin Castillo made a motion to go into a closed or executive session “to deliberate about the candidates,” who applied to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Chris Irving, at the special meeting held on Jan. 31, 2018. Once behind closed doors, school board members discussed whether or not to hold a community forum where the three finalists would be presented to city residents, according to multiple people who were present at the meeting.
“We definitely didn’t have a full-length discussion,” said Castillo on Monday afternoon. Board members were told at the meeting to respond to calls seeking their input on whether to hold a forum or not, she said.
Three school board members said an informal poll was conducted at the closed-door meeting to decide whether to have a community forum. A majority opposed hosting a forum.
Some argued for the need for a forum while others argued against it. Some argued the school board members are the elected representatives of the people and the board should be entrusted to make the pick from the top three and then announce it.
There was no stenographer in the closed-door meeting to transcribe the meeting. The board president said the attorney usually takes notes of the meeting. She wasn’t sure whether notes were taken in this particular meeting.
When told of Luers’ comment that the off-topic discussion may be a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, Castillo said: “Our counsel was in there at all times. He would have stopped us if anything was going in a different direction.”
The district did not make available its attorney Robert Murray for questions. Terry Corallo, spokeswoman for the school district, said “there was no ‘discussion’ about the superintendent search. It was one comment to remind Board members a response was needed to previous emails and phone calls about whether or not they wanted to host a Community Forum. Some had already responded, others had not.”
School board members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave varying duration estimates of the discussion. Two said it was at least 10-minute long.
“It was maybe a minute or so,” said Castillo.
School board member Jonathan Hodges and superintendent Eileen Shafer, both of whom recused themselves from the superintendent search, were out of the meeting room for ten minutes or so.
Luers said aggrieved members of the public have several options to take action against the board. He said they can file a lawsuit to seek a declaration the board violated the sunshine law, seek injunctive relief, or an order that tells the board not to violate the law in the future.
The public can also complain to the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office or the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. “They can also enforce the Open Meetings Act. They can seek civil penalties and other relief,” said Luers of the prosecutor’s office.
The law allows for penalties to be levied against board members. A successful lawsuit could invalidate any actions taken by the board at a meeting that violated the sunshine law.