Former Elmont School Board member Aubrey Phillips said the New York State commissioner of education recently ruled that he cannot seek to recover legal fees he incurred fighting a school board petition to have him removed from the board.
In 2006, the Elmont Board of Education majority, which included Robert Nori, Lorraine Ferrigno, Pam Monteverde and Frank Ragona hired a law firm, Ingerman Smith LLP, to send a petition to the New York State Education Department seeking Phillips' removal, claiming he violated executive session privilege in an interview by the Three Village Times about a raise granted to the superintendent of schools.
This past May, Phillips lost his bid for re-election. At the time of the election, the commissioner still had not ruled on the petition to remove Phillips.
Last month, the commissioner ruled that since Phillips was already off the board, having lost the election, the decision of whether to remove him was moot. However, he did grant Phillips a certificate of good faith, which would allow him to seek reimbursement for his legal fees.
However, according to Phillips, the commissioner recently reversed his decision so that he cannot seek to sue the board of education for his legal fees because the individuals who voted to retain counsel to remove Phillips were acting as a board.
Phillips said he is not bitter but does feel the state is badly in need of legislation that mandates the commissioner to rule on petitions in a more timely fashion. He said that even though the petition was filed with the state two years ago, it was still hanging over his head this past May when he ran for re-election and perhaps contributed to his loss. "I think the commissioner has to be compelled by law to have more timely responses to these kinds of things. In my opinion, he held not just me as a person hostage, but the community hostage for two years and the result of his inaction was that, at this election, those people who are politically opposed to me were given an issue to run with," he said.
Phillips believes that a person accused of something is entitled to a resolution within a reasonable amount of time. Instead, he believes, he had the issue hanging over his head as he ran for re-election. "If someone accuses you of something, constitutionally, you are entitled to a speedy resolution on this matter. Two years is not speedy," he said.
The commissioner apparently doesn't take two years to rule on all matters. In Mineola, a school board member sent a petition to the state on Feb. 1, 2008 asking the commissioner to intervene in a matter in which she felt her fellow board members were neglecting their duties. The commissioner issued a decision four months later on May 30.
Phillips also raised an issue over the rights that possibly should be granted to a board member. He believes that a board member is subject to having to defend himself or herself against frivolous petitions sent up to the state at the expense of the board member. "If you volunteer to be on a school board and you have some people who don't agree with what you're saying, all they have to do is come up with some bogus reason to file a petition and in order for you to answer that petition, you have to pay an attorney," Phillips said. "Basically, you are leaving that school board member at risk."
In the case of Phillips having to defend himself against the board majority's allegation that he violated executive session privilege, he also found himself at a disadvantage in that the board majority was allowed to expend taxpayer money in an effort to remove him from the board while Phillips' defense was paid from his own funds.
Still, according to Ragona, who is now the board president, believes the board, at that time, was justified in filing its petition since it felt Phillips was in violation of proper board procedure in keeping executive sessions discussions confidential.