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School Board – minus two – meets in secret over Paladino

A majority of Buffalo School Board members met in a secret meeting on Tuesday to discuss their course of action for getting Carl P. Paladino removed from the board.

All  board members – except for Paladino and his ally Larry Quinn – were invited and attended the meeting.

No public notice of the meeting was made.

Quinn says that his colleagues' actions denied him his right as an elected official to participate and seek legal counsel in the matter. Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold should have issued a public notification and given all board members an opportunity to attend, he said, even if the discussion was in an executive session.

"The president of the board called a meeting, sending notice to all members except myself and Mr. Paladino," Quinn said. "In my view it was a secret meeting. It violates state education law. It violates open meetings laws."

[Kriner Cash on Paladino: 'Behavior must have consequences']

An open government expert, however, said that elected boards are allowed to meet privately to seek legal advice without noticing the meeting to the public.

But that essentially poses a loophole in the state's open government laws, which require that meetings be publicly advertised and offer only a handful of exemptions.

"I don't like it," said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government. "But it's not illegal. It's a way around the open government law."

The board also puts itself on dicey ground should the conversation veer to any topic besides the legal matter before them.

"Then the exemption doesn't apply," Freeman added.

The School Board could have publicly advertised the meeting and then voted to go into an executive session to get legal advice. But if it did that, Freeman said, all board members would have been welcome to attend – including Paladino and Quinn.

[Ousting Paladino will be tough task, legal experts say]

Quinn, who was one of two board members to vote against seeking Paladino's removal, argued that excluding him from the meeting interfered with his right as a board member to get legal advice from an attorney working on behalf of the board.

Several board members defended the meeting, saying it was their right to seek legal advice outside the public eye.

"We have not done anything illegal," Nevergold said. "We have not done anything in secret."

The issue came up at Wednesday at the School Board meeting during a conversation on whether the board can seek Paladino's removal for revealing information from an executive session.

A majority of board members previously voted to petition state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia to remove Paladino for making inflammatory and racist comments about President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. They argued that his remarks interfered with the district's ability to do business and violated the state's Dignity for All Students Act, which requires the district to guarantee students a learning environment free of harassment and discrimination.

There have been differing legal opinions, however, on whether that argument meets the threshold for Elia to remove Paladino from his elected position. Several attorneys told The News that Paladino's comments are protected speech under the First Amendment.

[Community leaders lay down marker on condemning Paladino]

Board members who objected to taking action against Paladino said that the attorney the board hired advised that the original resolution was illegal because it called for Paladino to step down, which board members to not have authority to do. State education law prohibits boards from censuring or reprimanding another member.

"I want the public to know that that was an illegal resolution," Pierce said. "We were advised that that was an illegal resolution and that no member on this board has the authority to ask another member to resign."

That appears to be the reason for the change of course, with board members seeking his removal now honing in on a subsequent article Paladino published in ArtVoice,  revealing information from an executive session devoted to teacher contract negotiations.

That also seems to be the reason for the secret meeting Nevergold called Tuesday. A private notice she sent last week indicates that she invited several district administrators and all of the board members except for Quinn and Paladino.

"There's a trend here," Quinn said. "You can say all you want about distraction. I'm talking about disclosure, honesty and transparency."

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