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Editorial: School Board treats the right to know with disdain

It ought to be shocking, but it’s not. What the public learned from the hearing into Carl Paladino’s fitness to serve as a member of the Buffalo School Board serves instead as confirmation: not just of the board’s willingness to game the system, but of the overarching disrespect for constituents and democratic norms that pervade governments in New York, from school boards to the State Legislature.

Let’s be clear about this: Governments, including entities such as the Buffalo School Board, exist to serve the public. Their duty is to voters, taxpayers and, in the current case, students. But members of this School Board – and, no doubt, others – treat their offices of public trust as private playgrounds, where cliques conspire in secret and hurl metaphorical mud pies at their colleagues.

That’s the backdrop to the effort to remove Paladino from the School Board. That push began in the disruptive wake of Paladino’s execrable comments about then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. They were bigoted and demeaning and unbefitting of anyone in public office, let alone someone who offers himself as a leader of children.

But it is appropriately difficult to remove someone from public office for swinish behavior. That decision belongs to voters. That’s why Paladino’s critics quickly adopted a different tactic.

Thus, last week’s hearings on removing him from the board instead focused on his action in revealing what went on during an executive session that dealt with the effort to negotiate a new contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Executive sessions are, by law, meant to be secret. But they are often abused by organizations determined to keep uncomfortable information from the public.

Whatever his motivations were, Paladino revealed the information long after the contract was settled and, in fact, provided the public with relevant and important details. Paladino may be a loose cannon in whom no one should have much confidence, but in this case, his eruption served the public interest.

That’s more than can be said for much of what the School Board does. Indeed, if Paladino is forced off the board for this reason, then the rest of the board needs to be exiled as well. As testimony showed, Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold abuses the executive meeting law, herself, calling meetings with insufficient notice and lack of specificity. Indeed, the board held an illegal meeting for the purpose of trying to oust Paladino.

It’s not hard to understand their motivation. Whatever good Paladino has managed is undone by his abusive conduct, including his comments on the Obamas. It is because of his inexcusable behavior that last week’s hearing occurred at all. Because of him, an expensive public hearing was called, distracting both the State Education Department and Buffalo School District from critical matters. He is disruptive in the worst way, insulting to those who don’t agree with him and incapable of changing his ways.

But Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia should resist the temptation to eject Paladino. Neither his vile, bigoted comments nor his detailing of the discussions of an earlier executive session merits his ouster.

For better or worse, voters put him in office and they knew his record of vulgarity. And, as to his comments about private board discussions, Western New Yorkers need more public officials who will tell them what is being done in their name and with their dollars.

That’s true whether it is police departments declining to provide public information – that happened last week – or a state judge illegally concealing details about a public lawsuit filed in her courtroom. New York has good laws on open government, but because they lack teeth, they are followed only when officeholders feel like it.

Whatever else anyone might say about Paladino, in this case, he was on the side of the public.

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