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Board seat on hold

And closed-door caucus is challenged

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The Rochester School Board is still one member short. At a special meeting on January 24, the board's six current members couldn't agree on a replacement for Darryl Porter, who has joined the Duffy administration. If they can't select a new board member by February 4, under state law board president Domingo Garcia has the authority to name one himself.

The board had chosen two finalists from among 14 people who wanted to be considered for Porter's seat: Jeff Henley, a Penfield teacher who narrowly lost the Democratic primary in November, and Karen Jones, who is director of Mentor and Leadership Programs for St. JohnFisherCollege.

Board members had expected to make their selection during a closed caucus just before the January 24 board meeting. They failed to do that, and the public board meeting erupted in a contentious argument between Garcia and the board's newest members, Tom Brennan and Cynthia Elliott, over the selection process. Brennan and Elliott, joined by board member Shirley Thompson, charged that the board should have been more public as it considered candidates for Porter's seat and that Garcia hadn't established a clear, fair process for reviewing candidates.

Garcia insists that the board acted properly. "The law is very clear," he said later in the week. This is our responsibility. It is not intended to be an open-ended public debate. And the district has a policy of not discussing personnel matters in public for reasons of confidentiality."

Under state law, the board must name a Democrat to the vacant seat, since Porter is a Democrat (as are all current board members). Michael Looby, legal counsel to the district, says the board is mandated by state law to make the decision as a caucus within 30 days from Porter's resignation, and it can choose to meet publicly or behind closed doors.

But Robert J. Freeman, executive director for the state's Committee on Open Government, disagrees. He says the board should be reviewing candidates in public. The open meetings law, he says, is often misinterpreted. Even though the selection is the board's decision, the public should be able to hear questions and responses from the candidates.

Freeman provided City with a copy of the law and an opinion he wrote about a similar case in 1966. Freeman says the law makes a distinction between an applicant for a school-district job and an elected official. The opinion does not support political groups or caucuses who cite personal matters (medical, financial, or employment history) as reasons to discuss filling a vacancy of an elected office behind closed doors. These meetings should be held in full view of the public, he says.

At the January 24 meeting, an agitated Garcia said if the board can't agree on a candidate before February 4, "I will appoint whoever the heck I want to help me move this agenda forward for the district." The comment drew heckles from the audience.

"I was very frustrated at that point," says Garcia. "I was not angry with anyone in the audience, and I did not mean to be disrespectful. There was a process. We spent hours going over resumes and narrowing them down to two candidates to interview."

Garcia says he doesn't plan to call another meeting of the caucus.

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