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Oct 26, 2016 10:43 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton School District Continues To Fight Access To Records

Oct 26, 2016 10:53 AM

Southampton School District officials continue to fight a lawsuit by the Press News Group asserting that they failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Law by withholding the conclusions of an investigation that led to the resignation of former superintendent Dr. Scott Farina.

Recent court documents filed in the case indicate that district officials stand firm that the release of material the Press News Group is seeking could lead to an unwarranted invasion of Dr. Farina’s privacy.

Specifically, the district said in court documents that the investigation report requested by the Press News Group contains interviews with staff members about the allegations made against Dr. Farina. The allegations were never substantiated, the documents maintain, and therefore disclosing what they say would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The Press News Group—which publishes The Southampton Press, The East Hampton Press and the website 27east.com—is being represented by media law attorneys Rachel F. Strom and James E. Doherty of the Manhattan-based law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP. The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court on August 26, seeks to compel the school district to release the results of an investigation—paid for with taxpayer dollars—of Dr. Farina on unspecified allegations, which was conducted earlier this year and led to Dr. Farina’s resignation and a $300,000 payout as part of an agreement in April.

In their reply filed this week in support of the petition, the Press News Group attorneys said, “In its opposition, the school district continues to embrace secrecy over transparency by failing, yet again, to provide a particularized and specific justification for denying the public access to the request documents.” The attorneys also criticized the district for, alternatively, offering to provide the documents to the court for an in camera inspection, meaning a private review by the judge.

The Press News Group attorneys went on to say that the school district’s opposition “rests on the fallacy that the final report is exempt from disclosure because it contains an evaluation of misconduct allegations against the superintendent that the district never acted upon.”

But the legal papers note that documents show that, at the conclusion of the investigation into Dr. Farina, the school district and the former superintendent reached an agreement—that Dr. Farina would resign and receive $300,000, but that if he chose not to sign the agreement, or signed it but changed his mind within seven days, the district could “initiate the process of terminating” his employment.

Ms. Strom and Mr. Doherty argue that the clause constitutes an action in itself, by threatening Dr. Farina with termination if he didn’t sign the agreement to resign. “Despite the school district’s attempts to cloak their action in secrecy—the school district unquestionably acted on the findings in the investigation,” the attorneys say in their response.

On August 3, Reclaim New York, a nonprofit organization that focuses on municipal accountability, also filed a lawsuit against the district, saying it had failed to provide an electronic copy of spending records for the 2014 fiscal year. Reclaim New York also sought check numbers, which district officials said could lead to fraud if provided. Ultimately, the district settled the case, agreeing to pay Reclaim New York’s legal fees and to provide the requested information.

When asked this week if the School Board has discussed the possibility of settling the Press News Group lawsuit, or if the district is going to allow the matter to move forward, Dr. Nicholas Dyno, the district’s interim superintendent, simply said, “The district does not comment on active litigation.” He also would not disclose how much the district is spending to defend the suit.

Multiple attempts to reach Southampton School Board President Roberta Hunter for comment were unsuccessful.

The memorandum of law filed in August, laying out the plaintiffs’ legal argument, states that the information sought by the Press News Group “unquestionably [involves] matters of significant public concern.” It notes that the district’s “blanket refusal” to provide any information violates the Freedom of Information Law. “The significant public interest in such information … overwhelms any possible privacy interests here,” the firm’s attorneys argued, citing case law.

The lawsuit also asks the court to award attorney fees to the plaintiffs if the court finds that the school district violated FOIL. “The school district should be held to account and pay an actual price for their unlawful actions that embraced secrecy over transparency,” the lawsuit argues.

The court has the option of awarding a plaintiff attorney fees in a case where a municipality has failed to answer a FOIL request in the requisite time, or, as the Press News Group alleges in this case, has unreasonably refused to provide public information.

“New York’s freedom of information laws mandate transparency over secrecy in nearly all situations to protect the public’s inherent right to know what its government is doing,” Mr. Doherty said this week in an email. “As articulated by the petitioner in the lawsuit, the Southampton Union Free School District has not met its substantial burden of proof to establish that any one of the extremely limited exceptions to that law applies here.”

“There are important issues at stake,” Joseph P. Louchheim, owner and publisher of the Press News Group, said on Tuesday. “Too often, school boards and municipal governments try to shield the public’s right to know how they make key decisions, especially with how they spend large expenditures of taxpayer money.

“Despite the cost, it’s a fight worth waging for Southampton taxpayers,” he added, noting that a local organization, the Southampton Association, is sharing the cost of the legal fight.

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So the Southampton Press is running up the legal expenses of taxpayer funds to create the news rather than report on it. We all know why Farina left. Let's spend money on the future, not on the past.
By even flow (939), East Hampton on Oct 26, 16 12:23 PM
This coin has two sides, doesn't it?

If the school district was wrong in withholding the requested documents, then it is the DISTRICT, not the Press, which is responsible for running up the expenses, by its own intransigence.

At a minimum the court should review the documents "in camera" and nudge the district toward full compliance IMO. The Press would be well advised to accept this interim step, as there may be some documents -- not all -- which would indeed be an invasion of ...more
By PBR (4945), Southampton on Oct 26, 16 12:38 PM
I don't know why he left. Was it the supposed Carlos Danger pee pee picture texted to an ex girlfriend on a district phone? Or the dog he brought to his office when he slept there and walked around barefoot when he was non-domiciled? Or the pursuit of an unnecessary $8M 'admin building' (for him to live in)? Do tell.

What I don't know is how they could have hired him in the first place considering his past. And really why they need soooo many costly top-level admins for how many students? ...more
By foodwhiner (146), Southampton on Oct 26, 16 1:18 PM
2 members liked this comment
Why did he leave?
By eastendnews (2), center moriches on Oct 26, 16 8:07 PM
If a law was broken, financial responsibility lies with the party that broke it.
By dnice (2345), Hampton Bays on Oct 27, 16 5:22 AM
I still think this lawsuit is weak on a number of counts, and while this case is in process the Press reports their filing and now this "update" as actual news. It isn't news until the judge renders the judgement one way or the other. And doing it for the taxpayers? Give me a break! You got into this shaky lawsuit on your own, and frankly, after reading this article, I feel even stronger now that it's going to blow back on you.

And stop being so worried about your darn legal fees. No one ...more
By Rickenbacker (257), Southampton on Oct 27, 16 11:43 AM
Round and round we go. Where it stops, nobody knows.
By Hamptonsseashell (359), on Oct 26, 16 3:21 PM
even "we" don't all know why farina left. can you share?
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Oct 26, 16 6:30 PM
1 member liked this comment
Think Carlos Danger. Guy was in heat.
By even flow (939), East Hampton on Oct 26, 16 7:09 PM
300K to leave quietly............ Bravo Sierra
By bigfresh (4537), north sea on Oct 27, 16 7:04 AM
Hasn't this cost the taxpayers of Southampton School District enough already? The raunchy reign of the bedazzled surfer is over.
By even flow (939), East Hampton on Oct 27, 16 8:18 AM
1 member liked this comment
Let's all pray for a day when the media possesses the same drive to get to the bottom of real problems. We get it, sex sells, but so do stories about the positive things our schools are doing.
By SlimeAlive (1181), Southampton on Oct 28, 16 6:39 AM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By Vikki K (490), Southampton on Oct 28, 16 12:26 PM
Hot Tubs,SALE, Southampton Village, SouthamptonFest weekend