New Rochelle Board of Education Declares War on Free Speech - Bans Criticism of Board Members, Grants "Right to Interrupt" to Board Members


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NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Welcome to the administration of New Rochelle Board of Education President Lianne Merchant - where free speech goes to die and all dissent will be crushed. In her first act as the newly elected senior board President, Merchant waited until the last minute to unveil sweeping changes to board policy that eliminates any guarantees of public input into school board meetings as what can only be seen as a prelude to eliminating entirely any public involvement in school board meetings.

Beset by criticism over an unfolding story of corruption and incompetence on its watch, and infighting among its own members, the New Rochelle Board of Education last night proposed to "solve" that problem by severely curtailing public engagement during school board meetings.

THE NEWLY GUTTED POLICY: 9340 Public Participation in Meetings_REV_Track Changes

There are currently numerous criminal investigations going on concerning school district employees, the recent Board President was deposed after he was found to have misappropriated $13,000 to pay for his personal medical insurance, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the District asserting the District lied to investigators after wheel-chair bound students were left behind during a fire at the local high school, the District was issued fines and violation notices related to an asbestos exposure incident at an elementary school after an investigation by the New York State Department of Labor which also found the district never checked the license of its asbestos abatement contractor (the license was forged), the District's business manager (since fired) paid out millions of dollars to contractors with no-bid contracts and invoices lacking required documentation, filed phony documents during a New York State Comptroller Audit, and in a report to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and lied repeatedly about a $3.5 million dollar environmental services contract that was never drafted or signed.

One school board member disclosed last night that she filed a complaint with the New York State Education Department against the former board President, who still retains his seat on the school board. Another complaint was filed over fraud in the recent school board election in which ballot petitions were rife with forged signatures allowing two unqualified candidates to be placed on the ballot (one of them won a seat, the other lost). The New York State Education Commissioner is currently reviewing both complaints.

Facing an increasingly hostile public as the revelations and scandals multiplied, the new Board President unveiled a proposal that would gut public participation in school board meetings.

It has long been the tradition at meetings of the New Rochelle Board of Education that speakers were entitled to speak for up to 5 minutes, without interruption, on a topic of their choosing, without prior notice. Under the new policy, that would end.

Over the past year, the board has chipped away at the "Public Engagement" period, taken steps to restrict or limit speech -- requiring pre-notification to qualify for a 5 minute limit, demanding to know what speakers would say in advance and then cutting them off if they deviated from the topic or even appeared to be doing so, routinely interrupting and challenging speakers despite a policy that prohibited board members from interrupting speakers, refusing to answer questions from the public despite a board policy that required them to do so.

Under the newly proposed rules, the Public Engagement period would no longer be called "Public Engagement". The board would no longer be required to answers questions from the public raised during the "Public Comment" period, either during the meeting or after.

The number of public board meetings during the year, already reduced, will be reduced further. Two meetings this summer have already been cancelled.

The number of meetings during which the public can comment is being reduced to no more than one a month, and possibly none as the board reserves to itself the right to "suspend" public comment periods when it finds it convenient (presumably when more people want to speak which is typically when there is some controversy)

The time limit for a pre-registered speaker would be reduced from 5 minutes to no more than three and as little as zero as the board would now reserve the right to suspend the public comment period during the few remaining meetings where public comment would be on the agenda.

"A time for public comment will be provided on Regular Meeting agendas, but there may be times when, due to the press of other business before the Board, the Board may vote to suspend the public comment period for a particular meeting."

Speakers would be required to provide their topic in advance and could not deviate from that topic.

Speakers are limited to three minutes each, with remarks limited to the scope of the pre‑announced topic.

Previously, speakers who did not sign up in advance were given three minutes to speak. Under the proposed policy, such speakers will be given no more than three minutes, possibly less and possibly none.

It will be the prerogative of the President of the Board of Education, based upon meeting time constraints and the number of persons wishing to speak, to set a time limit, not to exceed three minutes, for each speaker.

Perhaps the most grotesque feature of the proposed policy is a blanket ban on criticism of elected officials and public employees.

Under the new policy, criticism of the Superintendent and his Cabinet, School Principals and all other employees of the District would be prohibited but criticism, interruption and speaking over or cutting off public speakers would be encouraged.

...issues related to specific personnel will not be discussed in public session

A section of the policy protecting the rights of the speaker has been replaced, perversely, with a section protecting Board Members from public speakers.

Have the right to speak without interruption unless the remarks violate the Board of Education rules for public participation in meetings Refrain from personal attacks on individuals, it being the intention of the public comment period to obtain views on issues of concern rather than the airing of inter-personal disputes.

Having eliminated the right to be heard, without interruption, the board grants itself a new right to not only interrupt but to interrogate public speakers:

Be prepared to offer supporting evidence for any factual assertions made in his/her remarks if requested to do so by a member of the Board of Education

Anyone wishing to raise concerns about malfeasance by employees to the board may not do so publicly but is required to file a complaint in writing.

Persons who believe that they have information bearing on possible improper conduct by any employee or officer of the School District are requested to bring such information, in writing, to the attention of the President of the Board of Education or the Superintendent of Schools.

Further steps are proposed as well, each designed to limit the public's "right to know" such as scheduling all executive sessions in advance, earlier in the day, before public meetings and creating "consent agendas" where discussion about agenda items would take place in secret emails among board members and out of public view.

Board members claimed last night that they were concerned about the length of board meetings and that the new policy was intended to shorten the length of meetings. Typically, there are 2-4 registered speakers for a school board meeting. Many meetings are long because they have include lengthy performances by students, presentations by school officials that can run for an hour or more, award ceremonies, tenure ceremonies, video presentations and what critics have called the "song and dance" portions of the meetings. Eliminating two minutes of speaking time, assuming that each speaker uses the full allotted time (often not the case), for three speakers on average would save six minutes per meeting.


For anyone who cares about free speech, democracy, public trust, and ethical conduct by elected officials, this proposed policy is nothing short of a Declaration of War against residents. It is a despicable, cowardly act that must not just be defeated but ground into the dust -- along with the board members who brought it forward. Two of them, Lianne Merchant and Valerie Orellana are up for election at the end of this school year. They must be defeated next May.

This resolution reeks of the foul of odor of David Lacher who, up until six weeks ago, was the school board President. Lacher has sought for years to reduce, eliminate or interfere with the Public Engagement period of school board meetings.

Lacher, now entering his 23rd year on the school board, is an indiscreet, self-indulgent loud-mouth who alternates between moods of self-pity and a sense of entitlement which has made him the poster child for term-limits.

It was no surprise to many when he was proven to have engaged in highly unethical and possibly illegal behavior by obtaining personal medical insurance through the school district and then refusing to pay when invoiced. With an account more than 8 months in arrears, and owing the District more than $13,000, he ignored repeated demand notices to make payment in full. He allowed to keep his insurance despite not paying for it by recently fired Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn who oversaw departments with a breath-taking degree of criminal activity.

It is our considered opinion that Lacher's misappropriation of public funds and gross violation of the public trust should be referred to the Westchester County District Attorney's Office and submitted to a Grand Jury for possible criminal indictment. As a practicing attorney, he should be disbarred. As a school board member, he should be removed from the board by the State Education Commissioner.

Lianne Merchant, his successor as board president sought to prevent members of the public from participating in a scheduled meeting with search firm consultants last January, with the support of Lacher. Merchant and her husband were upset with those residents because, as she asserted in email which later became public, they were responsible for defeating a proposed real-estate development in which her husband had an interest.

When the time comes, I am going to ask that those readers who support my many years of efforts to expose corruption and malfeasance at the New Rochelle Board of Education to stand with me on the night of 9/2, at 7 p.m. at the Linda Kelly Theater at New Rochelle High School. I will need all of you to sign up to speak in advance so you will get the full five minutes you are currently entitled to under existing policy. More on that later.

If you feel as I do, please express your views in a respectful manner to Lianne Merchant, David Lacher, Valerie Orellana. On second thought, they are showing no respect for the public so why should the public show respect for them?

Here is some contact information for the architects of this assault on free speech, if you find more contact information add as a comment. For the rest of know what to do. Let them hear what you think.

Lianne Merchant is the President of the Board

Lianne Merchant
Lianne Merchant

Her husband is Greg Merchant who, ironically, used the public comment period at City Council to deliver hundreds of phony signatures on petitions he orchestrated with Forest City/Ratner to support a project which he and his wife had an interest in.

Greg Merchant
Investment Design Properties
Work: (914) 633-3100

You can visit David Lacher's web site here:

Law Office of David Lacher
Mobile: 914-671-2171
Work: 914-729-7700
Home: 914-235-8926

Valerie Orellana
Valerie Orellana
The Mount Sinai Hospital
Main Switchboard 212-241-6500 or 212-590-3300

Rachel Relkin
Rachel Relkin

Chrisanne Petrone'
Chrisanne Petrone,

Jeffrey Hastie
Jeffrey Hastie

Sal Fernandez
Sal Fernandez

Pam Davis
Pamela Davis

Naomi Brickel
Naomi Brickel

Jeffrey Kehl
District Counsel
Work: (646) 253-2345
Fax: (646) 253-2385

Thanks, Glenn!

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UPDATE: New Rochelle Republican City Committee Issues Statement on New Rochelle School Board Actions on Public Engagement at Meetings, "Prior Restraint"

UPDATE: Westchester County Board of Legislators Vice Chairman Calls New Rochelle School Board Policies on Public Comment "Misguided"

UPDATE: Westchester County Legislator Sheila Marcotte Calls New Rochelle Board of Education Policy Clear Attempt to Stifle Free Speech

UPDATE: New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson Exploring Complete Elimination of Public Comment Period During City Council Meetings

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

John Imburgia on Mon, 08/18/2014 - 12:52

And if they end the public comment period, I hope they will appreciate the protests out in front of city hall until it is restored.

John Imburgia on Mon, 08/18/2014 - 12:50

We need to do a clean sweep in NR from the mayor on down. They have been sweeping their dirt under the carpet for too long. It's time for new leadership and new ideas.

John D'Alois on Wed, 08/06/2014 - 21:52

The thing about this is, if the board is uncomfortable with people complaining, commenting, or otherwise voicing an opinion about wrongdoings, the solution would be to take action against the things that are wrong. In essence, they are shooting the messenger. I have yet to see a meeting where any complaint was not worth looking at. The criticism seems to be regarding things the board isn't aware of, or at least their public facade gives the impression they are unaware. If your doctor tells you about a problem do you limit his speaking, bury your head in the sand?

There ARE problems. The board HAS presented itself as detached from the public, unless you are their to bestow accolades. Accolades do not solve problems, taking action under the view of the public eye builds confidence in the board's competence. If the residents were to see the board tackling the issues, we would all be more prone to offer more support.

At the end of the day, if you don't want people to speak of the lying, cheating, malfeasance , corruption, et al, then clean it up. The best way to silence the complaints is operate beyond reproach, in full view of the public eye. If you're not stealing they won't call you a thief. Remember, every penny corrupted takes away from providing the best of services to our children.

I urge the board to take a closer look at the conditions. Driving people away won't solve the problem. You should be welcoming the critique, use it as a "crowd sourcing" method to unroot the problems that have so obviously slipped past your oversight. Attempting to silence the people whom have elected will only serve to magnify the problems. You have all chosen to put yourselves in the hot seat, so don't complain when the temperature rises. You've brought this all upon yourselves.

I recommend bringing more people in, welcoming them, listening and ultimately make your case for action or dismissing. Definitely NOT building a wall. The voters will decide how well you've served.

In the meantime they're coming to get you, good luck

Laraine Karl on Wed, 08/06/2014 - 20:00

It seems the B of E is using the City Council as an example and they think it works. It seems 3 minutes at citizens to be heard is working fine. Well the board should attend a few council meetings and see the frustration that prevails. They must be reading Noam's playbook. Present an item at a meeting during the summer when few people are around and drop a bomb. Little do they know the power of the people. We have had enough and will not take it anymore. I hope all voters remember this meeting at election time. Do not forget to ask the hard questions during the debates.

I had hopes for Rachel Relkin, but her actions have certainly changed.

Thanks Bob for your reporting and investigations without them there is no hope.

Ken Lewis on Wed, 08/06/2014 - 18:39

We have a 2-1 voter registration of Dems -v-Repubs.
Worse than that people treat local elections as unimportant and do not turn out in large numbers. The local elections affect their pockets even more and harder than National Elections. Worse the School District tax levy is 2 times larger than the City of New Rochelle Tax LEVY and nobody shows up for school board or school budget elections accept the cronies of the powers in charge. I guess the public has gotten what they have deserved and until it becomes so evident that the present elected officials are the problem we get more of the same.
So the only hope has been this blog shining the light on the crooks. Speaking at public meetings was the other good method but the same 5 people show up.
More of the same will continue until this system breaks.

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Wed, 08/06/2014 - 18:08

I left the national blogging scene 6 years ago to focus on bringing transparency and open government to my hometown, New Rochelle, NY.

I have worked very hard. I have run twice for school board.

New Rochelle is a one-party town (guess which party?). For many years there have been no effective opposition to one party rule. I launched Talk of the Sound in 2008 to create a resistance movement.

There has been some successes. We played a key role in helping to defeat New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson when he ran for Westchester County Executive against Rob Astorino who is now running for governor against Andrew Coumo.

There have been a number of criminal investigations as a result of our reporting and some public integrity arrests. We exposed that a former Asst. Superintendent was a convicted felon with a long list of arrests for a wide variety of crimes. Our report recently resulting in the firing of the District Business Manager.

The fight began as one guy with a blog. Our success here has created blowback from the powers-that-be. This current effort to restrict speech is all about crushing dissent. They have the votes to ram this through and its been made to clear to me that they already anticipated criticism from me (Robert Cox/TalkoftheSound) and intend to blow right past that criticism.

What they may not have figured on is an Instalanche -- any effort to spread the word is appreciated.

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Wed, 08/06/2014 - 18:25

Love it! Exactly right.

All good ideas -- we have a blog, we asked Glenn Reynolds for help (and got it), sent it over to FNC, see if they are interested.

I did post the emails and phone numbers for these "malefactors".

I am not so keen on the home address thing.

My main goal right now is to raise awareness and turn out as many people as can come to the next board meeting.

That''s on September 2nd at the New Rochelle High School at 7 PM.

If you want to speak for the five full minutes under the CURRENT policy send an email to the District Clerk and tell her you want to speak on the topic of Education at the 9/2 board meeting. She is NOT the problem and a very nice person so please save your snarkiness for the school board members linked above. The clerk email address is

I suppose if enough folks come they will suspend public comments altogether; that might result in an interesting response.

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Thu, 08/07/2014 - 13:08

I am hardly staying within the boundaries of a game your opponent have rigged.

You are on this web site because 6 years ago my response to their "game" was to create this web site to report on all of the corruption, cronyism and malfeasance in the school district, on the school board, in city government and elsewhere.

People here in New Rochelle are well aware of what I've done to play my own "game" -- and play it much better than they do.

I have been beating them like a drum, stirring up the public to speak out -- it is precisely why they are attempting to suppress public comment at public meetings.

In other words, we are succeeding and this is their desperate attempt to turn back the clock.

And I have been taking action -- how do you think you found this article? I reached out to Glenn Reynolds. I am reaching out to others.

I will post the speech I gave that night, so you can see my initial response which was to say they had declared war on the residents of New Rochelle and that they were going to get Global Thermonuclear War in return.

I told them I would BURY them by working very hard to gather and report every bit of corruption and malfeasance possible as often as possible.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind your remarks, you are assuming that the extent of my efforts is to write this one article. It is not.

They started this fight.

I am going to finish it.

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Wed, 08/06/2014 - 15:03

Normally, we require registration to comment but with thousands of people coming to read this article we opened up comments for a limited time.

UPDATE: the open commenting is now over, we closed it up. Deleted all the resulting spam as well.

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Wed, 08/06/2014 - 18:39

I do not disagree as a matter of general principal.

However, you are not familiar with New Rochelle and the Board of Education or the level of corruption that exists here.

I cannot possibly explain it in a comment but this is a whole web site devoted to exposing the systemic corruption in our city government and school district -- and we have been very busy.

This change in policy is strongly rooted in what has taken place at board meetings after we reported last April that then School Board President David Lacher had obtained personal medical insurance through the district (allowed under New York law) but then failed to make timely payments so that he was in arrears for almost two years, much of that time over $10,000 in arrears. As the amounts grew, the District began sending demanding payment in full by certified mail, they were ignored so that at the time we first raised the issue in public he owed about $13,500.

The District routinely violated Open Meeting Laws and Freedom of Information law. In this case, after denying Mr. Lacher was even getting the insurance, we obtained the records and published them.

You can view a summary of our efforts here.

Lacher refused to resign and there were several contentious board meetings in which board members fought with each other and the public expressed their contempt both for Lacher and the board as a body.

THAT is where this "plan" originated.

And when you know, as I do, that this kind of stuff has been standing operating procedure you realize this is pure CYA.

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