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Carl's Way

Paladino has been both confrontational and conciliatory in pursuit of his agenda.

Carl Paladino didn’t get on the Buffalo school district’s Joint Construction Committee at last week’s Buffalo school board meeting, but he did get on the meeting’s agenda, finally.

Indeed, over the last several weeks, it has sometimes seemed as if Paladino has been driving the board’s agenda formally and informally. Following district affairs, and board affairs in particular, has become more interesting since the controversial Paladino began representing the Park District on the board last July. Whether that’s a good thing—as it surely is for journalists and aficionados of government bodies experiencing discord and dysfunction—surely depends on which ox one owns. Because Paladino has definitely been out to gore some, except when he hasn’t been. So far, there’s been a pattern of tension and disagreement buildups, followed by at least partial procedural and personal agreements and arrangements.

Last week, for example, Paladino asked board president Barbara Seals Nevergold why she has declined to appoint him to the construction committee, which oversees and reports to the board on the over-decade-long public school reconstruction program. The committee lacks expertise he could provide, Paladino said, alluding to his prominence as an area commercial real estate developer. Referring to a committee meeting he recently attended, Paladino said, “Nobody in that room understands construction.” North District member Jason McCarthy supported this argument. Paladino, he said, had “knowledge and experience. Why wouldn’t we reconsider and appoint him?”

The crux of the matter seemed to be Paladino’s previous call for a halt to school reconstruction pending a review of its necessity in view of a school enrollment figure of around 34,000, rather than the 50,000 projected in 2001 before the work was begun. Nevergold told him he had what she called “a conflict of interest” since he opposed continuation of the work. (Buffalo Teachers Federation president Phil Rumore, who enthusiastically supports the reconstruction, told Artvoice this week that it hardly matters since he believed only about one school was left unfinished.) Nevergold remained unmoved.

Former board member and president Ralph Hernandez expressed his disagreement with her in an interview. “I think he should have been appointed,” he said.

Ironically, a few minutes earlier, McCarthy, presiding in Nevergold’s temporary absence, mistakenly called on Paladino to give a report on his committee’s work. “Me?” Paladino said, surprised. “I’m not on a committee.” At-large member John Licata jokingly interjected, “Carpe diem, Jason,” pretending to suggest McCarthy appoint Paladino chair of a committee. But Nevergold remained unmoved.

But the most complex and contentious matter last week began with Nevergold’s initial refusal to allow resolutions from Paladino and James Sampson to be put on the agenda, although there was agreement that both of them had filed their items before the deadlines. She insisted that acceptance would require a two-thirds vote in favor. Paladino would have been hard-put to find six votes. Only McCarthy and Sampson often vote with him, sometimes joined by Licata.

There ensued a seemingly confused and hard-to-follow discussion of the chair’s ruling, which evidently caught Paladino and Sampson, and some of the other board members, by surprise. Nevergold told them that the board had been in violation of an obscure rule for years in allowing acceptance of proposed agenda items. (The Buffalo News’s Sandra Tan reported that she could find no such recorded rule.)

But Paladino and Nevergold soon adjourned to a back room and apparently worked out an agreement to allow consideration of the resolutions, in keeping with a decision at the board meeting on August 21, Nevergold reported back to members. If this result was an example of Paladino’s reputed skill at negotiation and persuasion, the widely circulated memo he sent out on September 9, ostensibly to Nevergold—a very long, dense, contentiously argued document—must show another side of his personality and methods. It’s in keeping with the tenor and tone of many scores of pages of similar memos and letters Paladino has distributed throughout the year.

It reads like a combination of a detailed lawyer’s brief and a right-wing litany of conspiratorial complaints and toxic accusations. “Issue 42—Board Presidency” opens with an assertion that Nevergold “is predisposed to operate the Buffalo Public Schools in secret” and is “incapable of carrying out your responsibility as president. If you cannot be impartial, you must resign.” Further along, he refers to “large speaking fees to other members of the national sisterhoods and brotherhoods,” potentially inflammatory language Paladino has used before. (Nevergold and several other members are African-American women.) In fact, buried in the abusive language, he has an arguably valid point about “improper and illegal” small-group board-member meetings some observers believe are intended to thwart the purposes of the state’s Open Meeting Law. It’s hard to resist the suspicion that Nevergold’s agenda decision was importantly influenced by this memo, however ill-advised it might have been.

In any event, amid the profusion of points, counterpoints, and resolutions, Paladino managed to make some headway toward satisfying one of his first central goals: obtaining information he’s been complaining he’s been denied, material related to the contractural terms, employment duties, salary, and authority of former Deputy Superintendent Mary Guinn, now an on-site consultant. He contended that board members don’t even know what she’s being paid. “I’ve been asking for this for 60 days,” he told the board. After considerable and sometimes convoluted discussion, Paladino acceded to a motion to send his demand to the finance and operations committee, where, yesterday, Paladino was scheduled to receive what he’d been asking for. Asked after the meting if he’d “caved,” he replied, “I don’t cave,” pointing out he finally was getting what he’d wanted.

It’s hard to resist the idea that all this business could have been settled more expeditiously and amicably. Paladino hardly seems blameless, but some of the board and Superintendent Pamela Brown sometimes seem to be working more to thwart him than perform the people’s work, even in those instances when his ventures are relevant and possibly valid. Hernandez observed that “Paladino isn’t a team player. He’s used to owning the team.” Although he’s far from a camp follower of the developer and conservative politician, he said that Paladino’s board activities may yet yield useful results because he “brings to the table things other people don’t want to talk about.”

In any event, what transpires will probably be interesting.

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