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Salmon River executive session may have been improper

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FORT COVINGTON - An official with the New York state Department of State Committee on Open Government, an executive session held during the Salmon River Central School District board of education’s special Monday night meeting may have been improper.

During a meeting to specifically address how to fill former board president Stacy Skidders’ vacant seat and to pick her successor, the board voted 6 to 1 to enter executive session “to discuss correspondence from our attorney.” Board member Robert Durant was the lone dissenter.

According to the state’s Open Meeting Law, legal matters can only be discussed behind closed doors if it pertains to “proposed, pending, or current litigation.”

Committee on Open Government Executive Director Bob Freeman said even in that case, the board must be more specific to provide the public with maximum transparency, while at the same time retaining information that could harm a legal case.

“The whole idea is to provide everything in the motion to provide a clue that there really was a valid basis for executive session,” Freeman said Tuesday. “It doesn’t appear the (Salmon River) board did that.”

He points to the 2012 court case Zehner v. Board of Education of Jordan-Elbridge Central School District, which states that a motion for executive session must specify beyond the eight legitimate reasons spelled out in the law.

On Monday night, the Salmon River board held an approximately 90-minute executive session before nominating and voting Judith Stark the new board president and Emily Lauzon the new vice president. The pair were the only two nominated for their respective positions and there was no public discussion prior to the vote.

The state Open Meetings Law says that “matters leading to the appointment ... of a particular person” is a valid reason for executive session, but the board made no indication of discussing the topic behind closed doors.

Additionally, they could have discussed “the medical, financial, credit, or employment history of a particular person” in executive session, but that as well was not indicated by the motion. The Zehner decision states that even had the board used that reason the particular person and the appointed position must be named in the motion.

“It’s conceivable they could have a basis for executive session, but the motion was devoid of information that there was a valid basis,” Freeman said Tuesday.

Upon leaving Monday night’s executive session, the board voted to hold an election for a new board of education member on March 19. Such an item is also not listed in the Open Meetings Law’s legitimate reasons for privacy. The measure was voted upon with no public discussion.

Ms. Stark and Mr. Durant could not be reached for comment. Superintendent of Schools Jane Collins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To learn more about the Committee on Open Government, go to http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/.

Go to http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/zehner.html read more about the Zehner decision.

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