Toms River Regional School Board called a special meeting to discuss the consequences of 64 district email addresses being sent school board political messages, and then adjourned after candidates confirmed no district email addresses would be recipients in the future.
At Friday's meeting, the possible misuse of the district email server to send a message from the "Clean Slate" team of candidates seeking election to several thousand addresses included sending the political message to 64 school employees' district email.
School Board Attorney Thomas Monahan said this is an action in violation of district policy, that says school emails should be used for administrative and educational purposes.
But after two candidates said district emails were removed from the list of addresses they'd be emailing, Monahan said he considered the issue resolved.
After hearing every member of the public that wanted to speak about the issue, the meeting adjourned after an hour and twenty minutes of debate at Monohan's suggestion, saying that the issue was resolved.
The meeting was called to discuss possibly litigating the matter, but one board member and several members of the public expressed frustration that it wasn't clearer what the impact could possibly be — a lawsuit, a judge's court order, an ethics complaint, a board reprimand.
Board President Ed Gearity said he hoped the issue wouldn't come to any of that at all.
"I don’t want any litigation. The only thing I want to hear this evening …is the use of this server was an accident, not intentional, and caused by a third party," Gearity said. "And those who had anything to do with it will make sure it never happens again."
The issue arose after several school employees complained they had received political messages via email from the "Clean Slate Team" of candidates to their school email addresses. The message, sent late last week, called for the recipients to support candidates Ginny Rhine and Joseph Torrone.
Superintendent Frank Roselli began the meeting with a summary of the complaints he received and said how he, after talking to the district attorney and the board president, agreed a special meeting needed to be scheduled.
Roselli said he spoke with the two union heads about how employees received the messages and that they expressed "frustration and outrage" over receiving political emails.
After Roselli, several members of the board, and Monahan had debated, asked questions and made comments between themselves at the meeting, the public then had a chance to make comments to the board or ask questions.
Many of the public comments said the situation had become politically charged, not only because of the emails sent but by the calling of a public meeting.
One resident called for an investigation of the board and administration, suggesting there was outright campaigning going on and that Roselli had inserted himself into the process, favoring candidates. Others said they felt the meeting was a waste of resources, as would be any potential legal action.
The debate also centered on how the list of employee emails could be considered free from receiving messages not relating to official business, because the emails were publicly published on the school district website for anyone to use.
To some, it was a matter of free speech, while others simply wondered what the point of the policy was, since anyone could have access to the list of district email addresses via the school website. Roselli said more than 2,500 employees have official school email addresses.
While district addresses are publicly available on the school website, one candidate said the 64 school emails came to be recipients because they made it to a third-party business's list. Candidate Joseph Torrone said the company's list was used to send out thousands of emails, and that 64 school district emails had made it to that list.
Torrone said employees made it to the company's list because the employees had signed up for a mailing list on the Internet through a variety of sources, using school district emails to log into sites for buying things online, playing online games or receiving other email newsletters, and that this action was what was in violation of the district policy.
Candidate Rhine said she was never contacted about the issue by the school, and instead found the matter would be the subject of a special school board meeting. She told the board at last night's meeting that the lack of communication surprised her.
"You had a lot of questions but you didn’t call me," Rhine said. "My biggest concern is why didn’t you call and ask."
She also said she believes the candidates are not to blame for the incident.
"We didn’t do anything wrong," Rhine said. "We already removed the 64 names from the list...It is correct we removed it from the list, and it was done just as a courtesy as it's not illegal."
The meeting was called to specifically discuss "Potential litigation to enjoin the 'Clean Slate Team' from using the Toms River Regional School District email system for political purposes," according to the meeting agenda.
The "Clean Slate Team" was first coined last year to describe the slate of candidates running for three seats at the time — Ben Giovine, Loreen Torrone and Alex Pavliv, who won the 2011 election — and is again being used this year for candidates Joseph Torrone, Ginny Rhine and Gigi Esparza.
Would it have come to a vote, there was disagreement on who would have a conflict of interest and have to abstain from the vote. Did Pavliv, Giovine and Torrone have to recuse themselves because of their association last year? Would board members Gus Kakavas, Jamie Jubert and Jack Reuther have to abstain as they were candidates in the coming election? Would Torrone have to abstain because her husband Joseph Torrone was involved?
Disagreement also ensued between Monohan's opinion that all board members could vote and Giovine's report on what a New Jersey School Board Association representative said that incumbents should not vote. Monahan said that because the wording of the message was not being debated, it was OK.
Two school board members — Giovine and Pavliv — as well as several members of the public said the board should also be discussing another incident of the misuse of district property to spread political messages, but Monahan said the matter could not be discussed because it was not on the night's agenda.
Pavliv said Superintendent Frank Roselli needs to investigate a September incident where at multiple schools a candidate political event flyer was posted on bulletin boards and allegedly passed among employees. The flyer calls for supporters to attend a political fundraiser for incumbents Reuther, Kakavas and Jubert.
In a letter released by the "Clean Slate Team" Thursday night, Pavliv outlines how he sees the September incident is also a violation of state election ethics laws.
Roselli said the matter would be discussed at the regularly scheduled Oct. 16 meeting of the school board, and he urged Kathy Eagan, Toms River Education Association union president, to make a statement that evening about the incident, as the flyer was spread through union members.
After repeated calls to discuss the flyer incident, Gearity said discussion should be about the email issue.
"We are only going to discuss the one matter this evening," Board President Ed Gearity said. "We are here and can hopefully resolve this both courteous and quickly...and whether we can go forward understanding this was just an error made" he said early in the meeting about the email incident.
The November election has the three incumbents seeking re-election against four challengers — the three "Clean Slate" candidates plus candidate Charlotte Ford Spillane, who is running independently for the Toms River board seat.
The Friday meeting was open to the public and began at 6 p.m. at High School North.
The special meeting was called approximately 48 hours of its scheduling, after the emails from "Clean Slate" were distributed this week. Toms River Regional School Board Meetings are regularly held 7:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month, and the next one is Oct. 16 at High School North.