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Hearing on whether to oust Paladino from Buffalo school board begins

Karen DeWitt
Carl Paladino's attorney, Dennis Vacco presents his client's case to state Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia

A hearing on whether 2010 gubernatorial candidate and Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino should be thrown off his city’s school board began Thursday at the New York State Education Department in Albany.

Controversial comments that Paladino made about former President Barack and Michelle Obama last December are not the subject of the hearing, but they nevertheless became an issue.

The nearing, convened by state Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, began with the attorney for the Buffalo school board explaining why the board is asking state officials to remove Paladino.

Board attorney Frank Miller said Paladino betrayed his oath of office when he widely disseminated to the media matters that were discussed in private executive sessions of the school board. The issues include details of teacher contract negotiations and some legal settlements.

Miller told the commissioner that Paladino’s acts were a “calculated judgment” to further the Buffalo businessman’s own political agenda and that Paladino believes he is a “law unto himself.” Miller argued that the board would be restored to a functioning governing body if only Paladino would go.

The charges are not about controversial remarks Paladino made to a local weekly newspaper, Artvoice, about the Obamas that many found offensive and racist.

Paladino’s attorney is Dennis Vacco, a former New York state attorney general. Vacco, in laying out the defense, immediately addressed the remarks. He said they were “low” and “unfortunate,” but he said the remarks were constitutionally protected free speech.

No audio or video recording of the hearing is allowed, but Vacco spoke to reporters during a break in the proceedings.

“This is all a charade,” Vacco said. “And a subterfuge to get at Carl Paladino in retaliation for his intemperate remarks that he made.”

Credit Karen DeWitt / WRVO News
WRVO News File Photo
Carl Paladino during a break in the proceedings with Jennifer Persico, one of the members of his legal team.

Vacco, in the hearing, said Paladino felt he had a duty to the public to disclose what was said in the executive sessions because they pertained to a union contract proposal that could be a “budget buster” for the district. And he countercharged that the executive sessions themselves were illegal because they were improperly convened.

The first witness was Buffalo school board President Barbara Seals Nevergold. She, along with other board members, signed a petition to remove Paladino from the board. Nevergold testified that Paladino, at the time of the meetings, last fall and early winter, never complained that the executive sessions weren’t following protocol.

Nevergold also testified that Paladino never said in the meetings that he thought the teacher contract might be illegal, something Paladino claimed in interviews with the media.

The hearing was sparsely attended, but one of those witnessing the events was Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

“We’re impartial as far as the outcome here,” said Kremer, who added he wants to see the process “done fairly.”

“And that both sides feel as if they’ve had their day in court, so to speak,” Kremer said. “And that a decision is made that is legitimate and well-founded.”

Kremer said holding a lengthy hearing on whether to remove a local school board member is “unprecedented.” But he said Paladino has become a lightning rod.

The hearing is expected to last several days. Elia will then issue a written judgement on whether Paladino should be removed from the board or can stay. Regardless of the decision, Paladino has vowed to file a federal lawsuit on the grounds that his right to free speech was violated.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.