Government transparency and election mishandling became a hot-button item at last week’s annual joint meeting of the Pleasantville Village Board and the Pleasantville School District.
As contentious as some of the exchanges were, by the end of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, both boards assured the public of their continued and dedicated work together.
Arguments centered on a write-in candidate for a village board seat, Angela Vella, who ran last in September in what was assumed to be an uncontested election. Vella is a Pleasantville School Board member. Accusations became volatile as parents viewed the write-in campaign as covert and mean-spirited on the part of the school board and one that seemed to target one-term village board incumbent Nicole Asquith, whose children are in the Pleasantville school district.
“I knew about the election, I drove past the fire house, I saw two women manning the table,” said Pleasantville resident Cathy Sabol, parent of children in the district. “I thought about going in and voting but I didn’t want to infect or expose anyone. I thought I didn’t need to vote [because it was uncontested]. I will never not vote again in my life.”
Vella has said she objected to the village’s lack of transparency and their failure to announce two board seats were up for election in a timely manner, which prompted her write-in campaign. “It was within my right to run and it was not a coordinated effort by the school board,” she said at the meeting, stressing that her write-in campaign wasn’t a school board issue and the joint meeting was not the appropriate forum to discuss it.
Other parents found the secrecy of the write-in ballot upsetting and wanted to know which board members specifically were involved.
“We’d like to know from all of the members of the board of education if you knew about the secret write-in campaign and if you helped by encouraging people to vote for Angela,” said Pamela Papish. “I’d like to hear from you one by one.”
Vella told her “we are not required to do that, and nobody should be put on the spot like that. It’s nobody’s business, just like it’s no one’s business who wrote in my name or who voted for me.”
Although it’s legal for one person to sit on two local boards, Vickie Neilson questioned the ethics of having one person running for and serving on both school and village boards.
“The different roles of the board of education and the village trustees can have a healthy tension,” said Neilson. “I don’t see how one person can wear both hats at once.” Neilson asked if there was a way to amend the village code to insure somebody doesn’t sit on both boards.
According to Village Mayor Peter Scherer, incompatible municipal offices are spelled out in the New York State Education Law, which says that ‘no trustee or member of a board of education can hold the office of district clerk, collector, treasurer or librarian.’ Scherer said the state law isn’t clear about other offices, but the law could be interpreted that individual municipalities have home rule. “I doubt we would pursue it,” he said about changing the village code. He did say he personally objected to a trustee being on two boards. “I think it’s a bad idea,” he said.
Traditionally, village boards encourage potential candidates interested in running for a seat and refer them to the Westchester County Board of Elections, which oversees village elections and provides petitions and guidelines. According to Scherer, the village is not legally responsible for advertising or promoting the election. School boards, however, generally elect board members at the same time the community is asked to vote on the yearly budget and practices an extensive outreach to the community using newsletters, announcements, forums and meetings about the proposed budget and the candidates.
The timing of the village board announcement of the two open seats was one of Vella’s main issues. According to Pleasantville Village Board Meeting Minutes, a resolution was passed on October 28, 2019, about the March 2020 village election. The Examiner reported on Feb. 3 that one-term incumbent Nicole Asquith and Chamber of Commerce Vice President Paul Alvarez were running for the two board seats; trustee Steve Lord was not seeking re-election. The Village formally announced the upcoming election on Feb. 10, two days before candidate petitions were due to the BOE with the required 100 signatures. Any resident wanting to run at that point would be hard pressed to get their petitions filled out. At that point, the election was slated to be in March, 2020.
This was an unprecedented election year with the village election postponed three times over a period of six months by Governor Cuomo due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most village residents, like Sabol, assumed the two board seats were uncontested and felt they didn’t have to vote. By September, many were hesitant to vote in public because of the virus. The result: 114 write-in votes were cast for Vella, 169 votes for Asquith and 282 votes for Alvarez.
Vella said when she received election day notification from the BOE in September it was three days before the election. “I had three days to run and it was within my right,” she recounted at the joint meeting. “This was not a coordinated effort by the school board. Some were aware [of my campaign] and others were not. It was never discussed by the board.”
Parents posing further questions about Vella’s motives were met with a refusal to answer, which angered some parents. When reminded that their five-minute public comment was up, it only added to the veil of secrecy.
“When is the time or place to discuss what happened? Can we schedule another meeting regarding this specific topic?” asked Pleasantville resident Sara Hukkanen. “What I’ve heard here tonight is offensive.”
Another parent of two children in the district, Deepthi Prakash, was concerned if the issue was having an impact on the relationship between the two boards. “We are barking at each other in high-pitched voices and that doesn’t help us move forward and demonstrating to our children that we can work together. There are lots of things that are legal but are morally and ethically wrong.” Prakash asked Vella for written assurance that if she plans to run [for village board] that she makes a public announcement.
Prior to the meeting a letter was sent by concerned parents to the village and school board requesting a discussion about the write-in campaign. School board member Shane McGaffey said he reached out to several parents who signed the letter to explain Vella’s actions. “Many understood her reasons but disagreed with the method.” McGaffey, who regularly covers village board meetings for PCTV, said he felt strongly that the candidate petitions were never announced. “I know the village is not legally required to [announce] but I feel they are morally obligated.”
The village has taken new steps towards becoming more transparent. Village work sessions that precede the regular meetings will now be recorded; a decision announced at the village board meeting last week. Work sessions usually have free discussion resulting in more comprehensive content. The village is ramping up their social media platforms and is considering live Facebook sessions on issues where residents can ask questions of village officials.
Village board trustee Paul Alvarez has been named liaison to the school board. “It’s disheartening to have something like this happen,” he said of the contentious meeting. “But we all have the best interest for our children and for their future. In the end, our biggest goal is to work together for education and for our kids.”