Rumors of Secret Emails Spark Board of Ed Debate
Alleged correspondences between some board members raise red flags for a resident and a BOE member.
The subject of the conflict is an Open Public Records Act request seeking a series of emails rumored to exist that some fear may show board members conducting business improperly.
Resident Robert Crawford told Patch that he is requesting the documents and received a reply from Interim Business Administrator Mark Resnick, the district's records custodian asking for 21 days to gather and examine the requested information, and then a second reply asking for another month. He said the followup added that his request still could be denied.
Asked what he thought were in the emails or if he ever saw them, the resident, a former school board member, declined to answer beyond saying that they "are emails [board member] Anthony Mancuso sent."
His OPRA request asks for copies of a number of documents reportedly sent by Mancuso covering a long list of dates and with subject lines including "recap" or "special meeting recap."
School board member Michael Strumolo brought up the matter after President Frank Calabria opened discussions for new business.
"I understand Bob Crawford has filed an OPRA request seeing some board e-mails," he said. "Do we [members] have a right to see them?"
Board attorney Kathleen Gilfillan explained that unless seeing the electronic messages was required for a member to do his or her job, then that right might not exist.
Strumolo displayed anger at the response and shared more information regarding the rumored missives.
"There are emails out there alleging there that are recaps of meetings that are sent to the Board of Education as recaps or recounts," he said. "Are you telling me, counselor, that I don't have a right to see them?"
Gilfillan explained that the documents are being reviewed by the school district's OPRA custodian.
"There is a limitation to information that even the board has access to," she said. "I haven't seen the emails. I don't know what they contain."
Strumolo raised his voice.
"They are on the computer server for the Board of Education," he insisted. "I am duly elected by the citizens of this town, and you are telling me I don't have the right to see them?"
"I don't know, but there is a limitation," she said.
"How do I get this information?"
"I don't know if you do or do not, sir," she said, not backing down. "The board is not privy to all information. There isn't a general right to information just because you sit on a municipal board."
She added that the OPRA custodian has not gathered or reviewed all the emails.
"I have a real problem with this," Strumolo said, glaring at Gilfillan. "I want a legal opinion. If more than a majority of board members are involved, would that be a violation of the Open Meetings Act?"
"It depends on the content," said the lawyer, who was then stopped short by an attempted interjection by a visibly angry Strumolo. "Mr. Strumolo, if you're going to ask the question, I expect that you will listen to the answer."
The angry board member fell silent, and Gilfillan continued.
"It depends on the information contained within the document," she said. "The OPRA custodian does not dictate what you see. You are permitted to have information that allows you to fulfill your duties on the board."
"When I was elected, one of the questions I was asked was, 'Do you want a Board of Education email account?'," stated board member Sharif Shamsudin. "I was told that because I'm a public official, those emails are OPRAble. If Mr. Strumolo says there are emails [on the BOE email server], are you saying they aren't OPRAble?"
"That's incorrect," Gilfillan said. "It doesn't matter whether it's a BOE email or a private email conversation, say, about the Yankees. If the information deals with board business, it's a government record.
"But there is a line the [state Government Records Council] has drawn between personal emails and emails dealing with government information."
"When I was a councilman, I was told we were not allowed to have multiple phone conversations because it would constitute an illegal meeting," an angry Strumolo chimed in. "I have a problem with your interpretation of the Open Public Records Act. The majority of the board were exposed to these, I hear, and you're telling me I don't have a right to see them?"
President Calabria stepped into the increasingly tense proceedings.
"You're casting a cloud here, Mr. Strumolo," he cautioned. "We're not sure about the numbers. Allow the process to go through. Allow the custodian of records to review this and then we will get a report."
The board attorney agreed.
"They will either release the docs or reject the request," she said. "We cannot interfere with the statutory responsibilities of the custodian."
"I find it comforting that we don't have the ability to invade people's privacy," said board member Deborah Orme. "We should be proud that we do not have the authority to go in and start putting at risk or making our community feel uncomfortable that we would go in and start reading emails.
"I do not need to have access to someone's emails. ... The board is not allowed to conduct board business via email. If we are not at this table together, we should not be conducting business, not even in closed session. There we discuss, but we vote in public."
"I couldn't agree with Mrs. Orme more. I concur with her about privacy," said Strumolo. "But if you're telling me the custodian will decide what I'm going to see and don't see, I think that should be challenged. He can decide what the public sees, but not what I see. Our counsel is able to see whether there is a violation and what I'm entitled to see.
"I question it was the Yankees they were discussing," he continued.
School board member Fran Orthwein took issue with Strumolo's statement that a majority of the board was somehow involved in the mystery email discussions.
"How do you know that? why do you allude that?" she asked. "Until you know the facts, you shouldn't allude to what people know or don't know."
"I'm questioning," Strumolo said.
President Calabria offered board members no answers as to what the rumored disussions entailed. He later told Patch that he has seen no e-mails and has no idea what these discussions were about or if they ever happened. He did, however, offer his colleagues some advice.
"If you don't want to see it on the headlines of the New York Times, don't write it," he said. "What we're being told may not be the case. That's why I'm going to sit down with the attorney to discuss it. Maybe we need to reissue [our e-mail policy].
Let's make sure we have our particular rules in order. We don't want to test the waters. We want to make sure.
"I just want to make sure we are following the letter of the law," Strumolo said. "Mr. President, I am asking you to turn this over to the attorney to investigate."
"Certainly, no problem," said Calabria. "I will take under advisement what you said and sit down with the attorney to ensure we are complying with the law."