ALBANY, N.Y. (WIVB)- Five witnesses were questioned over the course of six hours on the second day of Carl Paladino’s state education hearing.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia must decide whether to remove Paladino from the Buffalo School Board.
The board voted in January to petition for his removal based on claims he violated state law by releasing in ArtVoice information discussed during closed door, executive session. In the article, Paladino referenced contract negotiations between the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the district, as well as pending litigation involving Ciminelli.
The board’s lawyer Frank Miller called the district’s general counsel, Nate Kuzma, as the first witness on Friday. Previously Kuzma acted as executive director of labor relations for the district until Sept. 2016.
Miller asked Kuzma about the background of the contract negotiations. He testified that none of the board members objected to going into executive session leading up to the contract ratification, which happened on Oct 17. Kuzma did however, say that on the night it was approved an executive session was called but several board members disagreed arguing the information should be presented to the public. He said they decided to keep the information private and go into a closed door meeting to pass it because the union hadn’t presented the contract to teachers for a vote yet.
Miller also asked Kuzma about a Dec. 22 executive session and whether litigation involving a dispute with Ciminelli was discussed, Kuzma said yes. He testified that information was intended to remain confidential.
Kuzma testified under questioning from Miller that at no point did Paladino request his advice or permission to release the confidential information discussed in the executive sessions before publishing his Jan. 5 and Jan. 14 articles.
Paladino’s attorney Dennis Vacco took over questioning Kuzma. He asked Kuzma about how the district prepares for negotiations and why the budgetary information would be important for the public to know.
“He readily acknowledged, as general counsel, that the board members including Mr. Paladino have a fiduciary responsibility to the public around all of these issues and we’re taking the position that that fiduciary responsibility overrides all of these other considerations,” said Vacco during a press briefing afterwards.
Miller told reporters, “The public has a right to know what the outcome is but should never be apprised of the strategy and the other things that go into the process. You have to have the ability to conduct negotiations in a confidential manner… I strongly disagree that we’re keeping anything from the public.”
Vacco also tried to argue information about negotiations had been released to the public previously. He mentioned three presentations on the district’s website that included facts about the proceedings. Kuzma said the information was posted to keep the public informed about the district’s stance during negotiations. Vacco also introduced a document that shows a link to the teachers’ contract on the BTF’s website dated Oct. 15, which was two days before it was approved. News 4 went to that link and clicked on it, the actual document is dated Oct 17.
“Part of their case is confidentiality, well confidentiality is breached if the public is already aware of the terms and not at Mr. Paladino’s hands,” said Vacco in a press briefing during a break.
Miller told the media, “The entry simply refers to the contract, doesn’t identify the date and doesn’t indicate if it was tentative or not so there’s no indication as to what that document was so that’s not necessarily proof of anything.”
Kuzma also testified that he didn’t participate in the drafting of the petition to remove Paladino from his position but acted only as a liaison to connect the board to Miller.
Commissioner MaryEllen Elia had to step in during Kuzma’s testimony after a dispute between the lawyers over how much information witnesses could release about what was discussed in the executive session.
“How do they come in here claiming that there’s confidential information that was disclosed but they don’t want to tell anyone what the confidential information is?” said Vacco during a press briefing. “They just want to stand up there on the stand and make a broad pronouncement that these rather ambiguous and broad-based statements in a newspaper article or in an email violated confidentially. I don’t buy it.”
Elia decided only general answers could be given.
President of BTF, Phil Rumore, testified second.
He also gave a background of the teachers’ contract negotiations.
Rumore said he found out information about the district’s tactics for negotiating by reading the ArtVoice article. He testified that the article was a major talking point during a subsequent meeting with building representatives and would give the BTF an advantage in upcoming negotiations.
“It will have an ongoing impact into the future as they got insight into what occurred in a confidential executive session,” said Miller in a press briefing. “It’s going to create problems for the negotiators in the future as they have to deal with some of these issues.”
Vacco pointed out possible conflicts of interest for Rumore by establishing the BTF endorsed the majority school board candidates who filed the petition to remove Paladino.
“[Rumore’s] testimony was bought and paid for with that contract,” said Vacco to reporters. “He made it very clear that the six people who voted for this contract and the six people who are petitioners in this case, they were all supported by him.”
After an hour lunch break, three school board members were called as witness. Each was asked to confirm on the record they voted to petition to remove Paladino.
Dr. Theresa Harris-Tigg testified first. Responding to questions from Miller, she confirmed state board of education training included information about client-attorney privilege and keeping executive session discussions confidential. Harris-Tigg said she attended the training with Paladino.
Harris-Tigg testified that the content discussed at the executive sessions in Oct. and Dec. was meant to be confidential. She said Paladino did not have the authority to release that information and told Elia it will be difficult to participate in executive sessions in the future, knowing the information could get out to the public.
Paladino’s lawyer, Jennifer Persico, argued during her questioning of Harris-Tigg that information discussed by a publically elected board should be released to the voters. The board member rebutted that executive sessions are an exception.
Persico asked Harris-Tigg what specific information Paladino released that was meant to remain confidential, Harris-Tiff refused to answer. She argued she didn’t want to violate the same code of ethics she claims Paladino violated.
“What’s already been disclosed was unauthorized in the first place,” said Miller, to the press afterwards. “We put in the documents in which the breaches were documented, I feel that’s pretty clear on its face, there’s no point in going into other material or discussing other confidential discussions.”
Paladino’s other lawyer Dennis Vacco told reporters, “I don’t know how they prove their case with just some bold assertion that what’s written in a newspaper article on Jan. 5 was indeed the topic of conversation just because all of those people say ‘yes’.”
Persico brought up the comments Paladino made about the Obamas in an ArtVoice article, which have widely been deemed as racist. She called it “protected speech” and argued the board filed the petition to remove Paladino as retaliation for those remarks.
Persico played video from Dec. 29 school board meeting where the board passed a resolution demanding Paladino step down for his racist comments. In the video, Harris-Tigg said she would refer to Paladino as “orange Cheetos” and Persico argued that violates the board’s code of conduct.
The final two witnesses were board members Sharon Belton-Cottman and Paulette Woods, both who voted in support to petition to remove Paladino.
Woods was on the stand for about two minutes. Miller told News 4 her position was already on the record through the petition and he didn’t want to be redundant.
Paladino, Board Member Patricia Pierce, and Board Member Larry Quinn are all set to testify next week. The hearing resumes Monday at 1:00 p.m. in Albany.