The secret hearing on misconduct charges against a Hamburg Central School Board member violates the public’s right to open government and must end, a State Supreme Court justice said Wednesday.
Justice Diane Y. Devlin gave a stinging rebuke to the board and, in turn, its attorney, Andrew J. Freedman of Hodgson Russ, who had advised the board that the hearing could be held in secret.
“Clearly the plaintiff would suffer irreparable damage if I were to allow the School Board to continue to have closed hearings when the plaintiff has requested an open hearing, and the public would suffer irreparable damage to the public’s right to an open government,” Devlin said from the bench.
In granting a preliminary injunction, the judge ordered the School Board to conduct the misconduct hearing for board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci in public, although she said its deliberations on the charges against her could be held in executive session. Any vote it takes on the outcome should be done in public, the judge said.
During the three times the board has met for the hearing, which began in May, the board not only locked the door to the conference room in the Hamburg Administration Building, but escorted the public and media out of the building and locked the door to the building. Following each closed-door session, a board representative then summoned the media from the parking lot for the close of the meetings, all of which lasted more than three hours.
Schrauth Forcucci has demanded an open hearing since the board filed the misconduct charges against her in April. But the board, on the advice of Freedman, began the hearing last month in secret, holding three sessions behind locked doors.
The judge said there was no proof that the school district would suffer by holding an open hearing.
Freedman previously said the district locked out the public because it was concerned over security. The district also had to “protect the privacy and confidentiality of the proceeding” and did not want to create a “spectacle,” he said.
After the judge issued her ruling, he said: “The board looks forward to concluding this hearing as quickly and as expeditiously as possible, and have a decision reached on the merits.”
Schrauth Forcucci knew she gave up her privacy when she was elected to the School Board last year, said her attorney, Margaret A. Murphy.
“If she had something to hide, do you think she would be coming to court and say, ‘Let’s make this public’?” Murphy said.
“If she had been guilty of some gross dereliction of duties, we would expect it would be done in public, but by putting it behind closed doors, it raises those questions about what has she done.”
Devlin noted that state education law does not stipulate whether a hearing to remove a School Board member should be open or closed to the public. Because of that, the State Legislature’s “declaration of public policy in favor of open meetings” should govern the hearing, she said.
“We are dealing with an elected public official, and her election or removal is defined by the public playing a significant role in the function of the particular process in question in whether she should retain her seat or be removed,” Devlin said.
To do otherwise, she said, would allow the majority of any school board to “quash dissent” by suggesting that dissenting board members be removed through a closed-door proceeding. “That would result in minority view being disenfranchised,” Devlin said.
Murphy said the proceeding will allow the public to see evidence, not rumors or gossip. “I am of the great belief that when you give the public the information they need, facts and evidence,” she said, “they’ll always come to the right determination.”
The board held an executive session Wednesday evening to discuss the ruling.