Richard Mills, commissioner of the New York State Education Department, has ruled in favor of petitioner Rocco Lanzilotta and overturned last year's Westbury board of education trustee election. In his five-page decision, which was rendered March 26, Commissioner Mills ruled that "errors" at polling sites invalidated the "fundamental fairness" of the election in which Adelaide Brinson and Laura Pierce were elected trustees.
The decision, a rare one by the state, comes nearly a year after candidate Rocco Lanzilotta, who lost by a mere 10 votes, filed a lawsuit against the district requesting that the election be overturned because of election day "irregularities" and "inconsistencies" he claimed violated education law. The education department initially denied the June 2008 claim but Lanzilotta appealed.
In his decision, Commissioner Mills states that the May 2008 election was "fraught with irregularities, incompetence and failure to follow proper procedure" and calls for it to be annulled on the grounds that there "was an insufficient number of election inspectors at one polling site; the number of signatures in the registrant books is fewer than the number of votes cast; and certain absentee ballots were not counted in public."
According to Anthony Iovino, the Garden City attorney representing Lanzilotta, having an election overturned is not a common day occurrence, with only a handful to date. "The standard is very high and the likelihood of success [in having an election overturned] is very rare," he said, adding that while it may have taken longer than he would have liked for a decision to come down, the commissioner "ultimately did the right thing."
"The way the Westbury School District handled this election was pathetic. These elections are too important to the kids and the taxpayers to be run this badly," Iovino said.
The Westbury School District, however, "respectfully disagrees with Commissioner Mills' decision," and, according to spokesperson Don Miller, "stands by the fairness by which last year's election was conducted." Miller added that the district and board of education were currently "reviewing all available options" and had not yet made a decision regarding an appeal.
With the decision annulling the results of the 2008 election, the commissioner also ordered the board to "call a meeting of the district for the purpose of electing individuals to fill the board vacancies."
Iovino told The Westbury Times that he interprets this to mean that, in addition to vacating their seats on the board, both Brinson and Pierce should be removed from the district's website and budget materials set to be mailed out. "They are not to appear and serve as board members or receive confidential information and, obviously, they should not cast votes," Iovino said, adding that he plans to look closely at the votes Brinson and Pierce cast as board members over the past 11 months. "If taking these two votes out would have affected the decision we need to see what can be done," he said.
According to Miller, following the commissioner's decision, both Brinson and Pierce vacated their seats on the Westbury Board of Education. "In annulling last year's election, the commissioner's decision precludes Brinson and Pierce from serving on the board of education," Miller said. "The effect of the decision removes the two individuals from the board based on the commissioner's opinion as to how the election was conducted and not on any action or wrongdoing on the part of Brinson and Pierce."
He added that, as of press time, the "board of education has not met to discuss what the plans are to fill the vacant seats. Once the board does come to a decision, we will share that information with the public."
Lanzilotta, who confirmed to The Westbury Times that he, along with 2008 candidate Stan Ercolano, plan to seek election to the board again this May, said he was extremely happy and satisfied with the commissioner's decision. "I am ecstatic about the outcome and the whole democratic process," said Lanzilotta. "Even though it took nine months [for a decision] it was worth the patience. I am looking forward to running again with the hopes that the irregularities that occurred during the last election have been smoothed out to provide a fair election for all."