AMID CALLS OF FOUL OVER BOE ELECTION CAMPAIGN TACTICS, MANY EXPRESS DESIRE TO HEAL RIFTS IN COMMUNITY
May 27, 2014 -- At this past Thursday’s North Shore Board of Education meeting, members of the North Shore District Reform Group expressed their objections to an e-mail that was forwarded to many district residents and posted on a community Facebook group page, and to the use of what some said were inappropriate campaign tactics on the last day before the vote.
The e-mail , written by Tom Murphy, chairman of the district’s Legislative Action Committee and a former school board member, challenged assertions made in a letter written by Vito Palmieri, President of the North Shore District Reform Group, announcing that organization’s endorsement of School Board Candidate Robert Mazzella. Mr. Palmieri’s letter was e-mailed and forwarded to many residents in the community, published in the last edition of the Gold Coast Gazette before the election, and was posted by Mr. Mazzella, with a message thanking the NSDRG for its support, on a community Facebook group page the day prior to the vote.
In the letter, entitled “What a Difference a Year Makes,” Mr. Palmieri stated that since last year’s school board election, eight specific reforms had been adopted by the Board, and that those changes came about as a result of the efforts of first year trustees Marianne Russo and Michael Nightingale, two candidates on whose behalf the NSDRG had campaigned last election season. “There is still more to do,” Mr. Palmieri wrote, "and in this vein the NSDRG is supporting Robert Mazzella.” (Click here for Mr. Palmieri’s letter)
Mr. Murphy’s e-mail, which also had been forwarded to many residents in the district and was posted on the same community Facebook group, challenged Mr. Palmieri’s claims of changes that had taken place over the past year, in particular, that “BOE votes are no longer unanimous.” Additionally, he questioned the agenda of the NSDRG, and highlighted Mr. Palmieri’s relationship to an indicted former City Councilman. (click here for Mr. Murphy’s E-mail).
During Public Comment at Thursday's Board meeting, Mr. Mazzella, reading from a prepared statement, addressed the Board. After offering his good wishes to Trustees-elect Lara Gonzalez and Joanna Commander and presenting a Letterman style top ten list of things he had learned as a candidate, his tone turned serious. “I am more than a little upset,” he said, “that three high ranking Board of Education-appointed officials issued what I perceived to be a truly mean-spirited/hurtful letter in a veiled attempt to discredit my candidacy.” Additionally, he protested what he said were “baseless rumors” that he wanted to close the Sea Cliff Elementary School; and an “incident where Middle School PTO resources were allegedly used by an unidentified person in support on an individual candidate.” The last grievance related to automated telephone calls made on behalf of Ms. Commander, who ultimately finished first in the balloting. (Click Here for full text of Mr. Mazzella’s statement.)
Following Mr. Mazzella’s remarks, Mr. Palmieri addressed the board. The North Shore District Reform group, he said, was not created to push an agenda, but to represent the community. “When people in the community have something to say, and they’re not respected, someone has to step up,” he explained. With regard to Mr. Murphy’s e-mail, and its posting on Facebook, he said that he believed it was an “orchestrated” effort by three members of the Legislative Action Committee to malign him, and he called on the three to resign their appointed positions. He nonetheless said that he was willing to try to “build bridges.” “I’m not about vendettas, I’m not about revenge,” he said, “and I put out the Olive branch to work with the LAC Committee, with Mr. Murphy, Mr. Friedman, and Ms. McDermott.”
A few minutes later, Roger Friedman stepped up to the lectern to defend his posting of the offending e-mail on the community Facebook group page. He said that there had been no “orchestrated effort” on the part of the three LAC members, and that when he received the e-mail, he decided to post it on the Facebook group to challenge Mr. Palmieri’s assertion that votes were no longer unanimous. “I was at a number of these meetings. Every vote I saw was a unanimous decision and I objected to that [claim].” He said it was not intended as a personal attack on Mr. Palmieri or Mr. Mazzella. “I am in no way impugning Rob’s character,” he continued. “It’s not about him. If you look at every comment – this is just about the statement Vito made regarding unanimous votes.” In the give and take on Facebook, he said that he had posted that he believed Mr. Mazzella was a “fine person,” and that he was sure Mr. Palmieri was a “wonderful person. “If you are serious about building bridges,” he continued, “I am willing to talk.”
A few speakers protested the automated phone calls that were made on the Monday before voting day on behalf of candidate Joanna Commander, questioning their appropriateness in a school board campaign and whether it was legal for a group or individual paying for the calls to neglect to identify themselves in the message. The phone number and name of the person from which the calls were registered was indicated on “Caller ID” and a few speakers directed their criticisms towards that individual’s spouse, who was in the audience, saying that they believed it was inappropriate for an officer of a parent teacher organization to openly advocate for a particular candidate.
Trustee-elect Joanna Commander, clearly upset by the remarks, then addressed the Board and audience, and accepted full responsibility for the calls. She said that when the automated messages had been set up, she herself, in error, had neglected to change to her own number the phone number under which the calls had been registered. The voice on the calls was not of the individual whose name appeared on the caller ID, she explained, but rather of a friend who had been helping her with her campaign. “I needed to acknowledge that,” she said to the Board, “so that we can all move forward. The call tonight is to unite – let’s do that.” She added, “I think one of the things that excited me about election night was when I shook Mr. Palmieri’s hand and we agreed to have a cup of coffee. That’s where I’m coming from, that’s what I would like to do for this community.”
Like Ms. Commander, others expressed the desire to repair the fractures in the community that had been revealed by this, and the previous two school board elections.
Former School Board Trustee, Terry Glassman noted what appeared to be a division of the community into two opposing factions, and said that she did not “understand how we got to this point.” She said that it appeared issues have arisen in recent years not as a result of candidates’ actions or statements but of others doing the campaigning, and that that process ought to be reformed. “I would just like to see us come together as a community,” she concluded.
At the end of Public Comment, Dr. Melnick offered his thoughts. “Having served the district for 27 years, and having a son who graduated from here, it saddens me to see where this community has come at this point,” he said. “I think social media has something to do with it. All of us adults need to learn new methods of behavior and new rules for social media. I do think its important that we all model for our kids how to have civil respectful discussion and how to agree and how to disagree and it is my sincere hope that we can get past this and back to our primary focus which is on our children and giving them the best opportunity for the future.”
(The author of the article, Tim Madden, is a member of the North Shore Legislative Action Committee)
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