NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Welcome to the administration of New Rochelle Board of Education President Lianne Merchant – where free speech goes to die and all dissent will be crushed. In her first act as the newly elected senior board President, Merchant waited until the last minute to unveil sweeping changes to board policy that eliminates any guarantees of public input into school board meetings as what can only be seen as a prelude to eliminating entirely any public involvement in school board meetings.
Beset by criticism over an unfolding story of corruption and incompetence on its watch, and infighting among its own members, the New Rochelle Board of Education last night proposed to “solve” that problem by severely curtailing public engagement during school board meetings.
THE NEWLY GUTTED POLICY: 9340 Public Participation in Meetings_REV_Track Changes
There are currently numerous criminal investigations going on concerning school district employees, the recent Board President was deposed after he was found to have misappropriated $13,000 to pay for his personal medical insurance, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the District asserting the District lied to investigators after wheel-chair bound students were left behind during a fire at the local high school, the District was issued fines and violation notices related to an asbestos exposure incident at an elementary school after an investigation by the New York State Department of Labor which also found the district never checked the license of its asbestos abatement contractor (the license was forged), the District’s business manager (since fired) paid out millions of dollars to contractors with no-bid contracts and invoices lacking required documentation, filed phony documents during a New York State Comptroller Audit, and in a report to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and lied repeatedly about a $3.5 million dollar environmental services contract that was never drafted or signed.
One school board member disclosed last night that she filed a complaint with the New York State Education Department against the former board President, who still retains his seat on the school board. Another complaint was filed over fraud in the recent school board election in which ballot petitions were rife with forged signatures allowing two unqualified candidates to be placed on the ballot (one of them won a seat, the other lost). The New York State Education Commissioner is currently reviewing both complaints.
Facing an increasingly hostile public as the revelations and scandals multiplied, the new Board President unveiled a proposal that would gut public participation in school board meetings.
It has long been the tradition at meetings of the New Rochelle Board of Education that speakers were entitled to speak for up to 5 minutes, without interruption, on a topic of their choosing, without prior notice. Under the new policy, that would end.
Over the past year, the board has chipped away at the “Public Engagement” period, taken steps to restrict or limit speech — requiring pre-notification to qualify for a 5 minute limit, demanding to know what speakers would say in advance and then cutting them off if they deviated from the topic or even appeared to be doing so, routinely interrupting and challenging speakers despite a policy that prohibited board members from interrupting speakers, refusing to answer questions from the public despite a board policy that required them to do so.
Under the newly proposed rules, the Public Engagement period would no longer be called “Public Engagement”. The board would no longer be required to answers questions from the public raised during the “Public Comment” period, either during the meeting or after.
The number of public board meetings during the year, already reduced, will be reduced further. Two meetings this summer have already been cancelled.
The number of meetings during which the public can comment is being reduced to no more than one a month, and possibly none as the board reserves to itself the right to “suspend” public comment periods when it finds it convenient (presumably when more people want to speak which is typically when there is some controversy)
The time limit for a pre-registered speaker would be reduced from 5 minutes to no more than three and as little as zero as the board would now reserve the right to suspend the public comment period during the few remaining meetings where public comment would be on the agenda.
“A time for public comment will be provided on Regular Meeting agendas, but there may be times when, due to the press of other business before the Board, the Board may vote to suspend the public comment period for a particular meeting.”
Speakers would be required to provide their topic in advance and could not deviate from that topic.
Speakers are limited to three minutes each, with remarks limited to the scope of the pre‑announced topic.
Previously, speakers who did not sign up in advance were given three minutes to speak. Under the proposed policy, such speakers will be given no more than three minutes, possibly less and possibly none.
It will be the prerogative of the President of the Board of Education, based upon meeting time constraints and the number of persons wishing to speak, to set a time limit, not to exceed three minutes, for each speaker.
Perhaps the most grotesque feature of the proposed policy is a blanket ban on criticism of elected officials and public employees.
Under the new policy, criticism of the Superintendent and his Cabinet, School Principals and all other employees of the District would be prohibited but criticism, interruption and speaking over or cutting off public speakers would be encouraged.
…issues related to specific personnel will not be discussed in public session
A section of the policy protecting the rights of the speaker has been replaced, perversely, with a section protecting Board Members from public speakers.
Have the right to speak without interruption unless the remarks violate the Board of Education rules for public participation in meetingsRefrain from personal attacks on individuals, it being the intention of the public comment period to obtain views on issues of concern rather than the airing of inter-personal disputes.
Having eliminated the right to be heard, without interruption, the board grants itself a new right to not only interrupt but to interrogate public speakers:
Be prepared to offer supporting evidence for any factual assertions made in his/her remarks if requested to do so by a member of the Board of Education
Anyone wishing to raise concerns about malfeasance by employees to the board may not do so publicly but is required to file a complaint in writing.
Persons who believe that they have information bearing on possible improper conduct by any employee or officer of the School District are requested to bring such information, in writing, to the attention of the President of the Board of Education or the Superintendent of Schools.
Further steps are proposed as well, each designed to limit the public’s “right to know” such as scheduling all executive sessions in advance, earlier in the day, before public meetings and creating “consent agendas” where discussion about agenda items would take place in secret emails among board members and out of public view.
Board members claimed last night that they were concerned about the length of board meetings and that the new policy was intended to shorten the length of meetings. Typically, there are 2-4 registered speakers for a school board meeting. Many meetings are long because they have include lengthy performances by students, presentations by school officials that can run for an hour or more, award ceremonies, tenure ceremonies, video presentations and what critics have called the “song and dance” portions of the meetings. Eliminating two minutes of speaking time, assuming that each speaker uses the full allotted time (often not the case), for three speakers on average would save six minutes per meeting.
For anyone who cares about free speech, democracy, public trust, and ethical conduct by elected officials, this proposed policy is nothing short of a Declaration of War against residents. It is a despicable, cowardly act that must not just be defeated but ground into the dust — along with the board members who brought it forward. Two of them, Lianne Merchant and Valerie Orellana are up for election at the end of this school year. They must be defeated next May.
This resolution reeks of the foul of odor of David Lacher who, up until six weeks ago, was the school board President. Lacher has sought for years to reduce, eliminate or interfere with the Public Engagement period of school board meetings.
Lacher, now entering his 23rd year on the school board, is an indiscreet, self-indulgent loud-mouth who alternates between moods of self-pity and a sense of entitlement which has made him the poster child for term-limits.
It was no surprise to many when he was proven to have engaged in highly unethical and possibly illegal behavior by obtaining personal medical insurance through the school district and then refusing to pay when invoiced. With an account more than 8 months in arrears, and owing the District more than $13,000, he ignored repeated demand notices to make payment in full. He allowed to keep his insurance despite not paying for it by recently fired Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn who oversaw departments with a breath-taking degree of criminal activity.
It is our considered opinion that Lacher’s misappropriation of public funds and gross violation of the public trust should be referred to the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office and submitted to a Grand Jury for possible criminal indictment. As a practicing attorney, he should be disbarred. As a school board member, he should be removed from the board by the State Education Commissioner.
Lianne Merchant, his successor as board president sought to prevent members of the public from participating in a scheduled meeting with search firm consultants last January, with the support of Lacher. Merchant and her husband were upset with those residents because, as she asserted in email which later became public, they were responsible for defeating a proposed real-estate development in which her husband had an interest.
When the time comes, I am going to ask that those readers who support my many years of efforts to expose corruption and malfeasance at the New Rochelle Board of Education to stand with me on the night of 9/2, at 7 p.m. at the Linda Kelly Theater at New Rochelle High School. I will need all of you to sign up to speak in advance so you will get the full five minutes you are currently entitled to under existing policy. More on that later.
If you feel as I do, please express your views
in a respectful manner to Lianne Merchant, David Lacher, Valerie Orellana. On second thought, they are showing no respect for the public so why should the public show respect for them?
Here is some contact information for the architects of this assault on free speech, if you find more contact information add as a comment. For the rest of you…you know what to do. Let them hear what you think.
Lianne Merchant is the President of the Board
Her husband is Greg Merchant who, ironically, used the public comment period at City Council to deliver hundreds of phony signatures on petitions he orchestrated with Forest City/Ratner to support a project which he and his wife had an interest in.
Investment Design Properties
Work: (914) 633-3100
You can visit David Lacher’s web site here: http://lacherlaw.com