Union school board members clash over remote vote for president

UNION, NJ — School board members clashed at their annual reorganization meeting when board member Mary Lynn Williams was allowed to cast her vote for president remotely.

Williams was the only one of the nine members absent from the Jan. 3, and she participated via a conference call due to a death in her family.

Former President Vito Nufrio nominated Nancy Minneci while Kim Ruiz nominated Ronnie McDowell. Both nominations received a second and the board began its roll call vote.

When Williams voted for Minneci, Nellis Regis-Darby was the first to object, saying, “She can’t vote. She’s not present. She’s not here. How can she vote?”

Board attorney Lester Taylor told Regis-Darby that, since the board was in the middle of a roll call vote, she shouldn’t be commenting.
“The appropriate time for a question would be after the vote. But I will say there’s nothing in your board policy, there’s nothing in the law, that prohibits a member from participating in a meeting by phone,” Taylor said.
“She can participate but can she vote by phone?” Regis-Darby asked.

“My legal opinion is yes,” Taylor responded..
Williams was joined by Minneci, Sherry Higgins, Nufrio and Richardson in voting in Minneci with a vote of 5-4. Regis-Darby, along with newly sworn-in board members Kalisha Morgan, Ruiz and McDowell, voted no.
Williams did not respond to requests for comment from LocalSource.

“I don’t know that that’s her on the phone. You said so,” Regis-Darby said referring to board secretary Gregory Brennan. “I don’t know that it’s her. How do I know? I don’t know.”

Brennan had arranged the conference call that included Williams in the board meeting.
After Regis-Darby nominated McDowell for vice president, former board president Nufrio nominated Williams.
“How can you nominate someone that’s not even present?” Regis-Darby asked.

However, there was no second for Williams’ nomination, so McDowell assumed the position of vice president unanimously.
“There is no definition of ‘present’ however, due to technology in this day and age, people can participate electronically in meetings,” Taylor responded to Regis-Darby regarding the board’s policy on voting.

He also stated that the board’s policy is “silent” on voting remotely so, in his legal opinion, remote voting can occur.
“If our policy, in fact, speaks to the ability for board members to participate remotely, and it’s silent as to whether or not the board member can vote remotely, then my concern is that we are broadening a policy without a vote on that particular policy,” said Ruiz, who is new to the board.

Former board member Jeff Monge, speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting, read the board’s policy regarding voting methods.

“I’ll let you know that the precedent with this board is that you can call in to hear, but you were never able to vote. It happened with me and it happened with Mr. Nufrio, who’s sitting here now and saw all of this happening,” Monge said before reading the policy.
The policy reads that, “all motions shall require for adoption a majority vote of those present and voting (minimally, a majority of the quorum), except as provided by code or statute.”

He emphasized that the key word in the policy is “present” and that Williams is not.
Monge provided LocalSource with a copy of a letter he had sent to Executive County Superintendent Daryl Palmieri on Jan. 10, regarding how the meeting was conducted.

In the letter, Monge restated what went on at the Jan. 3 meeting and called for Palmieri to “step in and investigate this on behalf of the silenced parents, children and general public.”

“What is worse, it seemed obvious that the remote voting scheme was planned and discussed with the board attorney prior to the vote and surely others, but not the whole board. That element of surprise was very undermining to members and the public that had no clue on the intentions for the remote voting,” the letter reads. “Just because one can find a legal ‘loophole’ doesn’t make it right and ethical.”

Nancy Zuena, another former board member, echoed Monge’s sentiments by saying that she had participated through phone conference for several meetings but was never allowed to vote remotely.

“We broke our own policy tonight. So how is a meeting valid if we broke our own policy?” she asked during the public comment.
The board attorney stated that board members don’t have to answer questions during the public comment portion of meetings.
“I’d like an answer in the future,” Zuena said.