Ask No Questions, We'll Tell No Lies

October 8, 2000, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Copyright 2000 The New York Times, Section 14NJ; Page 1; Column 3; New Jersey Weekly Desk

By DEBRA GALANT

I have children, so I know how irritating it can be to have people ask lots of questions. Can we have a dog? Why can't we? Are we there yet? Can we leave? So I have some sympathy for the Lyndhurst Board of Education, which has grown tired of answering questions from three pesky citizens. How much do you spend on ink for the district newsletter? How many kids get subsidized lunches? Can I see the invoices submitted by the board attorney?

But frankly it hadn't occurred to me to handle a barrage of questions the way Lyndhurst did. In August, the school board filed a lawsuit in superior court charging its three most curious citizens with "malicious" harassment for asking 300 questions of the board in the past two years -- and demanding that they pay for the time that it has taken clerks, administrators and lawyers to answer the questions. The case, not scheduled to be heard until January, was met last week by a countersuit filed by the defendants.

"Nobody is denying their right to review and criticize school boards," said Tom Griggs, the attorney who is handling the case for Lyndhurst. "But you can't ask for so much information that you tie up board personnel for tens of thousands of dollars."

The board's lawsuit asserts that the reason for all the questions is political retribution. Elaine Stella, Mary Sheridan and Stanley Kaminksi -- the three defendants -- ran unsuccessfully for school board last year, and Ms. Stella and Ms. Sheridan had made several other unsuccessful runs. The repeated, often silly requests for inane, trivial information, the lawsuit declares, are motivated primarily by the anger of almost-perennial losing candidates.

But that is not the impression I got when I attended a board meeting in the aging Lyndhurst High School auditorium. True, there was bad blood. The board president timed every member of the public who spoke, and showed no mercy to anybody who went over three minutes. Several people who arrived late were not allowed to speak at all. And when the board went into executive session, Ms. Stella repaid the board's lack of courtesy with a vicious barb.

"They're going to come out and do personnel," she explained. "This is where they hire all the relatives."

Political animosity aside, what seemed to be going on was a typical exchange between an active taxpayer association and the town's elected officials. The taxpayers wanted details about how the board spent its money, and particularly about a new contract that had just been negotiated with the teachers' union. But in this case, the taxpayers -- mostly senior citizens -- far outnumbered parents. And news of the Lyndhurst Three had brought out taxpayer groups from other towns in support.

While the board was in private session, the taxpayer advocates buzzed around with all kinds of letters, documents, data and theories about government mismanagement and local corruption. I was handed newspaper clippings, property assessments, even a copy of the state constitution -- all by taxpayers with myriad agendas, wanting to quash corruption and save money.

Are these people annoying, shrill, relentless, lacking in social skills? You bet. But they are also the only ones who are doing their homework. "They exist so that you and I don't have to pay the same kind of attention," said Mark Alexander, an associate professor at Seton Hall University Law School. "It's an important role."

Sam Perelli, state chairman of the United Taxpayers of New Jersey, added:"You don't get answers when you're nice. You get no. When you become a thorn in the side of government at any level, that's the only time you get responses."

Lyndhurst's lawyer, Mr. Griggs, by the way, happens to be president of the Board of Education in North Arlington. I wondered what his relationship was with the taxpayers there. "I would say that all of the citizens of North Arlington are nice people and thoughtful and well-informed," he said.

I guess that means the taxpayers there are seen and not heard.

Lane Biviano, the lawyer representing the Lyndhurst Three, believes his case would be funny -- if it weren't so serious. "Could you imagine King George saying, 'John Adams, I think you're politically motivated?'" Mr. Biviano fumed. "Excuse me, did they ever read the Federalist Papers? This is arrogance. They don't have a Divine Right to be there."

But maybe officials in a town most famous for the theme restaurant Medieval Times think otherwise.


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