Press-Republican

September 20, 2013

City School Board denies FOIL request

Members vote 6-2 in favor of keeping letter regarding health insurance from DA private

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The Plattsburgh City School Board has opted not to make public a letter from the district’s attorney regarding unilateral benefit changes.

The letter, dated April 25, contains advice from the Albany-based law firm Girvin & Ferlazzo P.C. about whether the board has the legal right to switch employee health care from Plan A to Plan B without union negotiations.

Plattsburgh resident Walter Chmura requested a copy of the document under the Freedom of Information Law.

“The district needs and deserves this unilateral switch, so the public needs to know they have the opportunity to reduce taxes if their reps act in the best interest of taxpayers instead of vested interests,” he told the board during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting. 

“It is the moral and financially responsible action to take, saving $1.5 million per year, and should not be ignored any longer.”

‘WHY SECRECY?’

Later in the session, however, School Board President Leisa Boise, Vice President Tracy Rotz and members Dr. David Stone, Amelia Goerlitz, Robert Hall and Clayton Morris voted in favor of denying the FOIL request on the grounds of attorney/client privilege.

Ronald Marino and Steve Krieg voted against withholding the document; Fred Wachtmeister abstained.

This marks the third time Chmura has tried to obtain the letter; his initial request, made on June 20, was denied by the District Office.

Chmura appealed, and the School Board weighed in on the matter at its Aug. 22 meeting.

At the time, Goerlitz, Krieg, Morris and Stone were absent; Wachtmeister, Hall, Boise and Rotz voted to deny the request; and Marino voted against the denial.

The motion to deny access to the letter didn’t carry, however, as only a quorum was present, meaning it could have passed only with a unanimous decision.

“Mr Girvin already informed the district that a unilateral health-insurance switch from Plan A to Plan B could be done, and that was shared with me and in a board meeting, as well,” Chmura said at the most recent session. 

“I can only assume that the letter reconfirms that position, so I’m asking, why the secrecy?”

AT LEAST EQUIVALENT

According to City School Superintendent James “Jake” Short, the contracts for both the Plattsburgh Teachers’ Association and Plattsburgh Civil Service Employees Association state that the district’s health-insurance plan must be at least the equivalent of the Blue-Cross/Blue Shield Statewide Plan.

Chmura noted he was aware the unions could grieve a unilateral change, leading to litigation, something Wachtmeister had pointed out at the previous session.

The superintendent, too, told the Press-Republican last month that when the issue was discussed publicly in the spring, a representative from the Teachers’ Association indicated the group would argue the equivalency of Plan B to the Statewide Plan if a unilateral switch were to be made.

‘THAT’S LITIGATION’

Maybe the unions would win, Chmura said, or maybe they wouldn’t, “but the public will definitely know where the teachers stand in regard to their sense of community and concern for preservation of the public school system, our district. 

“My belief is that the issue can be resolved in the interests of the taxpayers and that unions will concede it is time to contribute.”

He also noted how, at the previous meeting, Wachtmeister indicted he was weary of causing litigation with unions, yet challenged the public to bring Article 78 proceedings against the district in an effort to force a unilateral switch to be made.

“That’s litigation,” Chmura said.

‘VOICE IN THE WIND’

Before the vote at last week’s session, Marino stated he stood by his position to grant the FOIL request, adding that Girvin’s opinion on the matter had been stated during public sessions in March and April, as is documented in the minutes of those meetings.

“Now that it’s in the form of a letter, I still don’t understand, nor do I support, that all of a sudden it’s attorney/client privilege,” he said. “If it was attorney/client privilege, it shouldn’t have been reported at an open meeting in March.

“I realize that I’m a voice in the wind, but I don’t believe that this board would be showing courage and integrity, as well as their duty to the taxpayers and voters that elected them to represent them, by denying this FOIL.”

‘LAWYER SAYS NO’

Morris, on the other hand, pointed out that Girvin had instructed the district not to release the letter, “and we pay this gentleman an enormous amount of money to listen to his voice, and that’s the direction I’m going to go in.”

Wachtmeister also spoke before the vote, telling attendees he still believed the letter should be kept private; however, he had given additional thought to the underlying issue of employee health care and believes several questions need to be answered before the issue can be resolved. 

Among those, he said, is whether Plan B is equivalent to or better than the state’s plan and whether the board can change retiree health insurance if the switch is made for active employees.

“I believe another written opinion from the board’s attorney should be requested that would answer the question: If the board had the right to make a unilateral change and, instead, negotiated a change for monetary consideration, would that constitute a gift of public funds, which is prohibited by law,” he said.

WANTS FULL DISCUSSION

During board member reports and remarks at the close of the meeting, Marino stated he would like information about some of the health-insurance plans the district’s taxpayers and voters have, such as the coverage provided to hospital and Georgia Pacific employees, to see how they compare to what the school provides.

Wachtmeister also requested that a motion be placed on the agenda for the board’s next meeting to switch the district’s Civil Service Employee Association and Plattsburgh Teachers’ Association members from Plan A to Plan B.

“We can have a full discussion of the issues that I think will give people a chance to vote yes or no or abstain or to table for additional information,” he said.

That meeting is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, in the Duken Building at 49 Broad St.

Email Ashleigh Livingston:alivingston@pressrepublican.com