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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Hempstead school board bucks open meeting laws

Hempstead school board president Betty Cross adjourns a

Hempstead school board president Betty Cross adjourns a meeting of the Hempstead School Board on the evening of June 23, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Hempstead school board clearly needs to learn more about the state open meetings law.

This week, the board attempted to schedule a closed meeting in an attorney's office in Carle Place, rather than a building located in the district.

After an inquiry from a Newsday reporter, one meeting date and place was changed -- to the superintendent's personal office, where seating is limited.

Since a contentious school board election in May, attendance at school board meetings has increased. But the board's tendency to schedule "special" rather than "regular" meetings has left residents complaining about a lack of openness and transparency.

The board's new president, Lamont Johnson, promised to change things. But scheduling a meeting at an attorney's office out of the district made things even worse.

For one, the "special" session came with what for Hempstead has become the usual short notice.

The notice did say the session would begin in public at "approximately 5 p.m.," before going into a closed meeting "approximately" one minute later to "discuss personnel issues."

The executive session, the notice went on, was to end at "approximately 7 p.m." -- with the public portion of the meeting closed at approximately 7:01 p.m."

All of which would have made for two minutes' worth of public meeting.

The notice, however, went on to make abundantly clear that the board didn't want residents at the meeting anyway.

"Please note public participation in the public session of the meeting is tabled until the next scheduled Regular Board meeting," it reads.

When exactly did the board meet to table public participation in the public session of a public meeting? Was that during the last "special" board meeting? And if so, was that done in public or during an executive session?

In all, the notice contains so many affronts to the state's open meetings law that it's hard to know where to begin.

The law, for example, requires adequate public notice. And meetings are supposed to be at a time, and in a place, that encourages rather than hinders public participation. In this case, that would be in the school district in a room that could accommodate as many residents as reasonably could be expected to attend.

As for executive sessions to "discuss personnel issues," the law is very specific about when boards may go into a closed session.

"The word 'personnel' is not there," said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government.

Johnson, to his credit, canceled the lawyer's office meeting and posted notice of two new ones. The action followed an inquiry from Newsday about the lawyer's office meeting. That was a start, although it's odd for a school board meeting to begin during the evening rush hour.

School boards have been sued successfully for violating the law, and actions taken during illegal executive sessions have been declared invalid, Freeman said in an interview.

The last thing Hempstead needs is more such chaos. Johnson must deliver on the transparency and openness that he has promised.

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