Toms River's Board of Education finished its sometimes heated first meeting of the year without a board attorney present, just as it began.
After winning a majority on the board, the "Clean Slate" members have enough votes to oust board attorney Thomas Monahan, something they tried to accomplish — but fell short of by two votes — when his contract was last up for renewal in 2011. Monahan, of the firm Gilmore and Monahan, has served the board for more than 20 years.
Though an initial agenda set aside two hours of an executive session intended for board members to interview eight prospective attorneys, that time was removed from the final agenda Thursday night.
"It smacks of an Open Public Meetings Act violation," said board member Michael Jedziniak. "I'd hate to see the three new board members start out the year violating the law," Jedziniak said, referring to "Clean Slate" newcomers Ginny Rhine, Joseph Torrone and Gidalty "Gigi" Esparza.
"It's my opinion that this process has been tainted," Jedziniak said before making a motion to table the appointment and hold the originally scheduled interviews at another special meeting.
The motion failed, as the six "Clean Slate" board members voted against it. Then residents were given the opportunity to speak.
"I hope you're as insulted as I am," Carol Benson said, addressing her comments to Superintendent of Schools Frank Roselli. "I find it totally unacceptable what the six board members have done."
Benson said that the candidates campaigned on bringing more transparency to the school district that had been rocked by the Michael Ritacco scandal.
"And you're not doing that. You should be ashamed of yourselves, and I'm ashamed that I voted for you," she said.
Another resident came to the microphone and called the members "an absolute disgrace."
After public comment, Jedziniak reintroduced the motion to table the appointment.
Ben Giovine, a "Clean Slate" candidate elected by his peers as board president Thursday night, said that he did not want to jeopardize the "good work" done by board members in seeking transparency over what he called a "misunderstanding" about the executive session and attorney interview process.
A second motion was voted against by Loreen Torrone, Joseph Torrone and Esparza, but Giovine, Rhine and Pavliv changed their votes and it was tabled. Board members now will appoint their attorney and labor attorney at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8 at High School North.
Monahan, who was expected to appear at the Thursday meeting but did not show, had his contract extended through that date to ensure the board will have an attorney present until a permanent appointment is made.
Earlier in the meeting, board member Tom Baxter said that it was not proper that the executive session had been taken off of the agenda.
"How can a decision like this be made without anyone knowing about it?" he said.
Rather than hold interviews, board members could have used the requests for proposals and quotations that were completed by the prospective attorneys and emailed to board members to make their decisions, Joseph Torrone said.
"I'm comfortable making a decision" based on those documents and other research, he said.
Board member Edward Gearity said the cancellation of the executive session suggested that some members may have made up their minds as to who they were voting for.
"I'm most interested in how six people can come to the same conclusion without possibly ... violating the Sunshine Law," Gearity said, adding that he had no idea who the nominations would be. "They have the six votes anyway, so what happens inside executive session probably would not have changed the final result. At least I would have the opportunity to meet them and ask questions."
"I can assure you there has been no violation of the Sunshine act," Giovine said.
A a series of individual phone calls and conversations to discuss the attorney position had been made, but members did not meet in a majority to talk about the appointment, he said.
As the sometimes contentious meeting concluded, Jedziniak struck a tone of reconciliation.
"There is no majority or minority," he said. "We are a board. We had a little bit of growing pains."