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An open process

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It is imperative that public officials thoroughly comprehend laws that impact how they carry out their duties.

Members of the Lisbon Central School Board of Education failed miserably in this instance. They held a closed-door session Monday to discuss how district officials should respond to the Feb. 5 death of 17-year-old Victor Novosel.

Many misinformed people left comments on the district’s Facebook page venting their anger at representatives of the school over Mr. Novosel. They were apparently unaware of the nature of his death, which was ruled an accident by police.

It’s understandable that school officials would be concerned about their own safety and that of their staff members after reading such comments on their Facebook page. While most of the comments were likely from people just letting off steam, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone harbored real intent behind the ugly comments made online.

However, district officials don’t have the right to close a public meeting just because some nasty comments made online left them a tad nervous. If they had concerns about something occurring while they met, they should have asked a couple of police officers to attend the meeting and ward off any trouble.

The Open Meetings Act for New York state 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.

Perhaps district officials believed the section of the law regarding “matters that could imperil public safety” gave a broad enough justification for their actions. If they said something that angered someone during an open meeting, could a fight ensue?

If this was what board members were thinking, that excuse is a real stretch. District officials admitted that no one actually made any threats, just left some rather unpleasant comments on their Facebook page.

Such language is uncalled for under any circumstances. But misguided comments do not constitute a matter “that could imperil public safety.”

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said the Lisbon school board’s closed meeting failed to meet any of the criteria for executive sessions deemed acceptable under the Open Meetings Act. He said school board members “have to develop thicker skin” to serve on a public body.

Harassing comments should always be a cause for concern. But the Open Meetings Act exists to allow members of the public to participate in the process of crafting rules and policies for the district, and officials have an obligation to ensure their operations remain transparent. They can’t scramble for any excuse to lock their constituents out when they perceive things may become heated.

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