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Buffalo School Board members insist their secret meeting was legal

Members of the Buffalo School Board who held a secret meeting this week say the law allowed them to seek legal advice outside of the public eye.

Seven board members held that meeting Tuesday without telling two other board members - Larry Quinn and Carl P. Paladino - or the public when they paid for legal advice on how to oust Paladino.

At the regular board meeting Wednesday, Quinn criticized the other members for the secret meeting.

"My real concern is that they deliberately excluded me and denied me the opportunity as to hear the opinion of our legal counsel," Quinn said.

This was the response issued Friday by board members Barbara Nevergold, Sharon Belton-Cottman, Theresa Harris-Tigg, Hope Jay, Paulette Woods and Jennifer Mecozzi:

"We wish to respond to the baseless assertion made during Wednesday’s board meeting that members of the Board held an 'illegal meeting' on Tuesday, January 17, 2017.  We were properly advised that it was lawful for us to meet with counsel in a private session to review the viability of a petition to remove a member from the Board. The lawfulness of this meeting has now been confirmed by an independent source, Robert Freeman of the New York State Committee on Open Government, as quoted in the Buffalo News today.  The Board and its counsel relied upon prior written opinions from the Committee on Open Government in concluding that such a meeting was lawful.

"We also strongly believe that the petition seeking Mr. Paladino’s removal has substantial merit, and that the facts support a review of Mr. Paladino’s status as a member of the Board of Education.  We felt it to be our duty to protect the Board’s ability to discuss sensitive issues candidly without fear of disclosure.  We believe Mr. Paladino’s actions impede the Board’s ability to deliberate on such issues, and that the Commissioner of Education should decide whether he is fit to continue serving on the Board."

When The News contacted Freeman, he said that elected boards are allowed to meet privately to seek legal advice without publishing notice of the meeting to the public. But that exposes 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 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."

Freeman also said inviting only some members to the private meeting was legal. The School Board could have publicly advertised the meeting and then voted to go into an executive session to get legal advice, which it typically does. But had it done that, Freeman said, all board members would have been invited.

Quinn, who was one of three board members to vote against seeking Paladino's removal Wednesday night, says that his colleagues' actions in excluding him from Tuesday's private session  denied him his right as an elected official to participate in the conversation and seek legal counsel in the board matter.

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