The state’s expert on open government said a recent Stillwater Central School District school board discussion should not have been closed to the public, based on board member Valerie Masterson’s account of the discussion.
Masterson claims that board President Brita Donovan called an executive session during a meeting last Thursday to chastise Masterson for asking school administrators numerous questions about the district’s budget.
Executive sessions are not open to the public.
“It was a personnel issue, 1,000 percent,” Donovan said. “I was trying to protect her.”
“I said to [Donovan], ‘This is not executive session material’,” Masterson said. “I feel like I was reprimanded for asking for information that I should have been given as a board member.”
Masterson said she told the board that she had no objection to the discussion taking place in public, but it continued in executive session for about 10 minutes.
Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, sent an advisory opinion on the matter to the school board earlier this week.
“It has been advised on numerous occasions that ‘embarrassment’ is not one of the grounds for entry into executive session,” Freeman wrote in the opinion.
Donovan said nothing improper occurred during the executive session.
“It was for personnel only, end of story,” she said. “If [Masterson] wants to make it more [of a story], that’s her prerogative, but I’m not going there.”
Masterson said she has been seeking detailed information about the proposed 2008-09 budget that she didn’t get during budget presentations.
For example, she said she asked officials to explain why certain new staff positions were being added and why some salary lines in the budget showed increases and others showed decreases.
She also wanted to know what the projected surplus would be for this year.
“I wasn’t demanding information,” Masterson said. “I was asking for information that should have been given to us as board members.”
Superintendent of Schools Stanley Maziejka said that the executive session issue is a school board matter and it isn’t his role to comment on it.
“Anybody who is on this board has gone through board training and is well aware of the rules of executive session,” Maziejka said.
A section of the state’s open meetings law states, in part, that valid reasons for executive sessions include discussing “matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.”
“From my perspective, there was no basis for conducting executive session, and you are free to discuss or disclose any aspect of the executive session that was improperly held,” Freeman wrote to Masterson in the opinion.
He stressed that his opinion is not a legal ruling.
“In this instance, there’s nothing to win. I suppose anybody could go to court and get an order requiring the board to comply with the open meetings law going forward,” he said. “This is a wake-up more than anything else.”
The Committee on Open Government issues between 800 and 900 opinions every year, according to Freeman.
Donovan is drafting a response to Freeman’s opinion that she said will be sent on her own behalf and will not represent the entire board.
More from The Daily Gazette: