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Lisbon Central School Board of Education panned by state Committee on Open Government for closed meeting

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LISBON — A closed-door meeting by the Lisbon Central School Board of Education this week that appeared to violate state law was called “ridiculous” by New York’s open-meetings expert.

The meeting, held to discuss the district’s reaction to the death of 17-year-old Victor Novosel, was held in executive session after Board of Education President Blake P. Gendebien cited a “public safety” concern stemming from comments made by community members on Facebook.

Mr. Novosel died accidentally at his home on Feb. 5.

Mr. Gendebien said members of the board and school administration have been feeling “major heat” from comments made by members of the public in the wake of Mr. Novosel’s death, which is why he closed the meeting.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said members of the board “have to develop thicker skin” if they are going to continue in public service.

Originally the board planned to hold a closed session to discuss “personnel” issues but upon examining the state’s Open Meetings Law realized that was an illegal reason to hold an executive session.

Mr. Gendebien then went through the law publicly to find a subsection that would allow the board to shut the public out.

The Open Meetings Law allows closed-door sessions to discuss matters that could imperil public safety; law enforcement efforts or a criminal investigation; current litigation; collective bargaining; the employment history or disciplinary action of individuals at the school; evaluation of employee performance, or purchasing land.

Told of the board members’ actions, Mr. Freeman said it sounds like “that they were grasping at straws” to come up with a reason to hold the closed session.

And while Mr. Gendebien declined to spell out exactly why the board felt that comments made on Facebook constituted a public safety threat, Mr. Freeman simply said that “it doesn’t.”

Mr. Freeman said he hopes that the board members “would think twice” in the future about shutting out the public on such pretenses.

Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, recommended that districts restrict their Facebook posting to accurate community news items and advised that they refrain from engaging angry commentators in public.

“We reserve the right to edit comments or take them down,” he said. “Certainly we’re public institutions, so we want to be aware of concerns. I think there is some real value in that. I think where it crosses the line is when it gets really uncivil. There’s no value in that; it devolves into name calling.”

But Mr. Burns said utilizing social media is extremely important for districts today.

“What we found is that a majority of people now get their news online,” he said, adding that if districts restrict their communications to paper newsletters they are “potentially missing two-thirds or more of your community.”

All posts since Jan. 7 have been deleted on Lisbon Central School’s Facebook page.

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