Hamburg Central School Board members not only kicked the public out of the hearing on misconduct charges against another board member Tuesday night, they told members of the public and the media to leave the building.
The board moved to go into executive session at about 6:50 p.m. to start the hearing on misconduct charges against board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci and asked the public to leave the conference room in the administration building on Abbott Road.
As reporters were standing in the hallway outside the room, district clerk Barbara Sporyz said she had to ask everyone to leave the building. She said no one would be in the building except board members and attorneys inside the hearing room, which she said was locked. She said the district could not have people roaming the halls.
Reporters noted that the board, at some point, must vote to end the executive session for the evening, and that must be done in public.
The district’s lawyer notified the media at about 10:25 p.m. that the hearing was over, but when reporters got into the room, the board had already voted to end the executive session. The attorney said the building was locked during the hearing, keeping the public and the media outside, because of security reasons.
District lawyer Andrew Freedman said there was nothing improper about the meeting Tuesday night. “This proceeding, while it is being done in executive session, is absolutely not a secret proceeding,” he said.
He noted a stenographer was making a record of the proceeding, and Schrauth Forcucci had her attorney present. He said it is a democratic process, and it is a “fallacy” to accuse the board of not having an open proceeding.
“This notion that we’re having a secret proceeding and that things aren’t being done on the up and up is just false,” Freedman said. “She is going to have more than her fair share of due process.”
But when Schrauth Forcucci’s attorney tried to have a discussion in open session about what the rules and procedures for the hearing would be, Freedman and board President David Yoviene would not allow it.
“I have not been provided what those procedures are,”Murphy said.
Freedman said the two attorneys had a meeting to discuss procedures but they were not able to come to an agreement. He said Murphy could make her case about the procedure during the hearing.
Before going into executive session, the board chose board member Thomas Flynn as the foreman to preside over the deliberation process. Freedman said Flynn’s duties would be similar to those of a jury foreman.
Schrauth Forcucci, who is nearing the end of her first year on the School Board, is facing 11 charges that she berated and/or verbally attacked board President David Yoviene, Superintendent Richard Jetter, an elementary principal and Jetter’s secretary on separate occasions.
Schrauth Forcucci and her attorney, Margaret Murphy, have said they wanted the hearing conducted in an open session. But Freedman, recommended that it be conducted in a closed executive session.
Board members Holly Balaya and Sally Stephenson argued Tuesday night that the hearing should be open.
“She was elected by the people,” Balaya said. “We are a public body. She is not an employee of the district.”
“Let the whole thing be aired in public,” Stephenson said. “Let’s see what the elephant in the room is.”
After returning from the session, the board discussed inviting Cameron Hall, who was elected the board last week, into the hearing sessions in case the proceedings continue into July. Hall takes office July 1, and would be able to vote on ousting Schrauth Forcucci after he is sworn in. Board members asked their attorney to research the issue, and they will discuss it more at Wednesday’s session.
Freedman said at least four hearing dates have been added in June.
Margaret Murphy, attorney for Schrauth Forcucci, said she will continue asking that the hearing be held in public.
“I think it would have been eye-opening to the whole community,” she said of Tuesday’s session, which included testimony from Jetter.
Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said the board can conduct the hearing in executive session, but he believes the discussion about how to conduct the hearing should be made during the open section of the meeting.
“If they are talking about the ground rules for a proceeding, it seems to me that should be a public discussion,” he said. “The form, it seems to me, should involve a public discussion. The substance, on the other hand, can clearly be private.”
The Open Meetings Law allows the board to discuss matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation in executive session.