DISTRICT RESIDENT PETITIONS NYS EDUCATION COMMISSIONER TO INVALIDATE 2014 BOE ELECTION
November 20, 2014 -- A Glenwood Landing resident has petitioned New York State Commissioner of Education John King to invalidate this past May’s North Shore Board of Education election - a vote in which more than 2,400 residents participated. The petition, obtained by Northwordnews through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the New York State Department of Education, was filed by Christine McDonough and received by State Ed on June 20. Alleging that “unfair” conduct kept candidate Robert Mazzella from winning one of the two open seats on the School Board, Ms. McDonough requests a re-vote, or that Trustee Joanna Commander, who finished first in the balloting, be removed from the Board and Mr. Mazzella awarded the position. Mr. Mazzella finished third in the election, 101 votes behind candidate Lara Gonzalez and 116 behind Ms. Commander - nearly a ten percentage point difference.
According to the three School Board election voter poll lists FOILed by Northwordnews, Ms. McDonough was not among the more than 2400 residents who cast ballots in the election that she is challenging, nor did she vote in the previous two contests.
Ms. McDonough is an employee in the same workplace as Mr. Mazzella. Mr. Mazzella is not identified as a petitioner in the suit.
In addition to Ms. Commander, Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick and the North Shore Board of Education were identified as respondents. Although many of the allegations are general in nature and not specific to Ms. Commander or her supporters, Ms. Gonzalez, whose election is jeopardized by one of the two requested remedies, was not specifically identified as a respondent.
In her complaint, Ms. McDonough repeats three of the grievances that Mr. Mazzella had expressed at a school board meeting two days after the May 20 election. They concern automated telephone calls made by a supporter of Ms. Commander on the eve of the vote; an e-mail that challenged claims made in an endorsement letter written on behalf of Mr. Mazzella that appeared in the Gold Coast Gazette and that Mr. Mazzella himself had posted on Facebook group page; and, allegations that a rumor was spread that Mr. Mazzella supported closing Sea Cliff School - a rumor the petitioner said was false. Additionally, Ms. McDonough claims that some of Mr. Mazzella’s campaign signs were stolen, and alleges that the Schools Superintendent and members of the School Board were not neutral during the election campaign.
In the first two allegations, Ms. McDonough questions the appropriateness of residents who volunteer for school or district affiliated groups exercising their right to free speech as individuals, out of concern that voters will construe the message as coming from the group for which they serve.
Although Mr. Mazzella and a third district resident are not identified as petitioners, supporting exhibits to the petition include screen shots and a photograph of their Facebook pages opened to Ms. Commander’s Facebook page and to the “Joanna Commander for North Shore Schools” Facebook group.
Ms. McDonough states in her petition that the acts which she alleges “constitute a continuation of the egregious tactics employed by current and former Board of Education members to get candidates elected that will unquestioningly support the administration’s choices for our children without opposition from any contrary position.” It is unclear which of the seven Trustees who were on the Board on June 16th when the statement was notarized she believes were responsible for the alleged tactics, since none are mentioned or alluded to in the petition, nor is any evidence offered in support of the charge.
Ms. McDonough states she believes that if not for the actions she alleges took place during the election campaign, Ms. Commander would not have been able to secure an additional “100 votes,” which in turn “would have resulted in her loss.” She did not include any statements from voters supporting that assertion. She concludes the petition with a request that “the election be invalidated and that either a new election be had or that Commander’s election be invalidated and the remaining candidates be awarded the victory.”
The School District submitted a response that was received by the NYSED Office of Counsel on July 31 and acquired by Northwordnews through its original FOIL request.
That response requests the Commissioner to dismiss the petition both for a lack of substance to the claims and on procedural grounds. First, with regard to the substance of the allegations, the district offers a rebuttal of the individual claims, and additionally asserts that “the petitioner has failed to meet her burden of proof in that she has not presented any evidence demonstrating that any voter was influenced or misled as a result of the alleged improprieties, or that the outcome of the election was affected. . . . The petitioner does not present one scintilla of evidence that Mazzella would have received more votes than Commander but for the alleged improprieties.” The district also maintains that the petitioner did not meet legal requirements of serving the petition to respondents and all affected parties within 30 days of the election, with Ms. Commander being served on July 1 and Ms. Gonzalez not being listed as a respondent or served, despite being an affected party.
The District’s response concludes, “The petitioner’s request to invalidate the election and/or disqualify Commander and award her seat to Mazzella is without merit.”
As of the posting of this article, the Commissioner of Education had not yet issued a decision regarding the petition.
According to documents FOILed from the State Education Department by Northwordnews covering the last five years, while efforts were made to overturn the budget vote in 2011 and to block the facilities bond vote in December 2013, this is the only instance that an effort has been initiated to overturn a Board of Education trustees election during that time period.
Ms. McDonough did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Mr. Mazzella had not responded to specific questions by the time of publication. Ms. Commander and Ms. Gonzalez declined to comment.
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