BUFFALO, N.Y. - Three days from now, Carl Paladino will sit before the New York State Education Commissioner on Washington Avenue in Albany, where he must defend himself against accusations that he is no longer fit to serve on the Buffalo School Board.
The State Education Department, unaccustomed to such scrutiny and publicity, conducted a lottery to determine which members of the public will be allowed to attend. Video and audio recording will not be permitted, but national media outlets are expected to cover the hearing, as they continue to monitor Paladino's political career following his unsuccessful run for governor seven years ago.
The media attention is rare, but the hearing itself is even more rare. According to the New York State School Boards Association -- as well as the attorney for six school board members seeking Paladino's removal -- the State Education Commissioner has never presided over a hearing of this type, to their knowledge.
That means you could say that Carl Paladino is making history on Thursday.
"I've never seen this in the 32 years I've been here," said Jay Worona, the deputy executive director and general counsel of the School Boards Association. "This is very unique."
The case against Paladino, brought in a petition by six of his outspoken opponents on the Buffalo School Board, also promises to develop into an intriguing legal battle, pitting First Amendment rights to free speech against Section 306 of education law that allows for the removal of a neglectful school board member. Frank Miller, the attorney for the six school board members, said he expects about a dozen witnesses to be called during the hearing, which could last into Friday or even next week.
The case is also complicated, and perhaps not well-understood by many members of the general public. Of course, many people in the Western New York area are familiar with Paladino's comments about the Obama family in Artvoice back in December, when he said, for example, that he wished Michelle Obama would be "let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe." Those comments led to an eruption of protests at City Hall and numerous calls for his resignation from the school board.
But those statements about the Obamas are not included in the school board members' petition to remove Paladino from the school board.
Originally, the six school board members had passed a resolution asking for Paladino's resignation because of those comments, or else they threatened to start the petition process with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. However, after consulting with their attorney Frank Miller, they decided to draft a new resolution, focusing instead on comments Paladino made in an entirely separate Artvoice article about the district's teachers' contract negotiations.
His published editorial about the contract negotiations, board members argued, violated confidentiality and should not have been disclosed to the public through a media outlet. Releasing that information from executive session should be grounds for removal, they said.
Ultimately, Commissioner Elia will make that determination. She will issue a ruling at a later date after the conclusion of the hearing.
But Paladino has framed the removal effort as a form of retaliation against him, arguing that these six school board members have a personal vendetta and are clamoring for any excuse to remove him from their board.
Last week, Paladino even filed a federal lawsuit against the six board members, accusing them of violating his First Amendment right to free speech by seeking his removal.
"It's improper for them to seek my removal on the basis that they have complained," Paladino said. "And I will fight it."
Paladino's attorney, Dennis Vacco, did not return calls seeking comment on Monday. Their federal lawsuit against board members and the district is entirely separate from the state hearing that begins on Thursday, but the legal complaint sheds some light into the arguments Paladino's team may put forth in Albany later this week.
The lawsuit accuses the board members of seeking his removal as retaliation for his comments about the Obamas, but it also argues that Paladino had a right to disclose information about the teachers' contract negotiations as a matter of public interest.
"The public has a right to know about the corruption and rigging of the teachers' contract," the lawsuit claimed.
Worona, the counsel for the School Boards Association, said that although the petition to remove Paladino does not specifically address the comments about the Obamas, they will undoubtedly become a factor during the hearing process. Paladino's own legal team may bring up the comments as a way to portray the six school board members as acting recklessly and retaliatory.
"The school district is maintaining that there was a breach of confidential information that placed the district in a position to proceed with this hearing," Worona said, "that Mr. Paladino has breached his duties as a public officer and that he should be removed. I believe, based on what I've been reading, that Mr. Paladino's defense is to the extent of which it was confidential or not -- that the only reason the district cares about this is because of the statements they were not appreciative of."
And so begins the arguments bound to emerge on Thursday: did Paladino willfully neglect his role as a school board member? Or did school board members simply retaliate against him because he made statements seen by so many people as racist and offensive?
Rachel Dominguez, the secretary of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, said she believes Paladino did neglect his duty by attempting to distract the public from his comments about the Obamas.
"He shifted the narrative away from that conversation to the teachers' contract... and in doing so, did willfully put forward an argument with confidential information," Dominguez said. "So I think he, yes, knew exactly what was happening when he did that."
Dominguez, who has spoken against Paladino at board meetings in the past, earned a seat at the hearing in Albany through the state's lottery. She will be leaving Buffalo Wednesday night and will stay through the duration of the proceedings.
"I don't care about unseating him for any reason other than I think he did the wrong thing," Dominguez said. "I think he set a bad example for the children in this district, and I think there needs to be consequences for doing so."
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