Tonawanda News

February 7, 2013

Tonawanda SD board fills vacancy

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The City of Tonawanda school board filled the body’s vacancy Tuesday night by appointing Danielle Opalinski to a temporary term. 

She will have to rerun for her seat in May’s election. 

The vacancy was brought about last month when Lynn Casal resigned from her post after being displeased with the board’s election of James Newton as the district’s new superintendent.

Ironically, Opalinski replaced Casal when she resigned previously two years ago. 

Three seats, including those of Opalinksi, Board President Jackie Smilinich and Vice President Demelt Shaw, will be up for election in May. 

But a board member hopeful, Elizabeth Olka, is speaking out against the way the board went about electing Opalinski.

She said she questioned the board Tuesday about the body’s meeting Jan. 29, at which the board members interviewed the four final candidates. 

Olka is taking issue with the board completing the interviews in executive session — a practice she believes violates the public’s right to “view the deliberation process and scrutinize decisions made by elected officials.”

“I think they made a good decision, I just have an issue with how they did it,” she said. 

According to Olka and News records, when the board has had to fill a seat in the past, it has been done in open session after an individual as nominated a candidate for the spot. 

Olka also contacted the state’s Committee on Open Government, which provided her with feedback. 

“Nevertheless, in the only decision of which I am aware that dealt directly with the propriety of holding an executive to discuss filling a vacancy in an elective office, the court found that there was no basis for entry into executive session,” Robert Freeman, executive director of the committee, said in a letter to a town board about a separate issue.

In the letter, he cited the case, and said, “Certainly, the matter of replacing elected officials, should be subject to public input and scrutiny.”

But the case itself deals with a much more serious issue, in which a handful elected officials in a village entered into executive session for the purpose of switching around their respective positions. 

“Nevertheless, since it is the only decision that has dealt squarely with the issue at hand, I believe that it is appropriate to consider Gordon as an influential precedent,” the letter states. 

Smilinich, along with the district’s lawyer, Chris Trapp, each deny that the board did anything illegal or improper. 

“We did nothing wrong, we did as we were instructed,” she said. “The way that our attorney explained the case to us ... it’s really not applicable.” 

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150