Write-in candidate upset over exclusion from forum

Former board prez. says he will present matter to ACLU


Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE – A write-in candidate for the Board of Education is claiming his First Amendment rights have been violated.

Frank Weber said his exclusion from the PTA Presidents’ Council’s Candidates Night was unfair, and he plans to fight it.

“There seems to be a concerted effort to keep me out of everything,” Weber said.

Weber decided to run as a write-in candidate on March 13, after learning that the incumbents on the board were not seeking re-election. He served on the board for seven years, including a term as president from 2000-01. He lost the April 2002 election and has made unsuccessful bids to return since that time.

After contacting the PTA Presidents’ Council by e-mail to request participation in the candidates’ forum, which was to be aired on the Board of Education’s public access television channel, Weber received a response saying he could not because he was not an official candidate. Weber said he was told that the decision of the council was made by e-mail and by phone, not in an actual meeting.

“It’s like having 12 different jurors in 12 different parts of the country, and not hearing the trial, but doing it by phone and e-mail,” Weber said.

Jill DeCaro, coordinator for the council, said Weber contacted her March 14, a day after she had already conducted interviews with the candidates. She also said e-mail and phone calls were her only option at that point.

“How else was I supposed to get in touch with my fellow Presidents’ Council members, given the time constraints he gave me,” DeCaro said. “I feel I’ve handled this to the best of my ability.”

Weber pointed out that he declared his candidacy to the board secretary, and was sent a candidates’ questionnaire from the Old Bridge Education Association.

When Weber contacted Superintendent of Schools Simon Bosco, however, he received a response that left him unsatisfied. Bosco spoke with the attorney for the Board of Education, and told Weber he was considered a fringe candidate, and therefore was not required to be included in such activities, Weber said. Bosco cited a Supreme Court case in Arkansas, on which Weber said he was still awaiting more information.

“I think I would let the public decide whether I am a fringe candidate or not,” Weber said, adding that he finished fourth in the elections of the past four years.

Bosco held to the opinion of the attorney. “He’s not a candidate at all, according to the election board,” Bosco said. “If Mr. Weber would have come to the board meeting [Tuesday night], our attorney would have answered him publicly.”

Board Attorney Scott Carbone contacted county Board of Elections Attorney Leonard Bier for clarification on the matter, according to a letter Carbone sent to Bosco. Bier stated that, because the event was not a public forum, the hosting groups had a right to choose who was allowed to participate.

Carbone referenced the 1998 Arkansas case, as well as a 2001 case from the New Jersey Appellate Division. Both involved candidates who felt their rights had been violated by not being included in televised election events aired on public channels. Though the channels were state run in both cases, the courts ruled that reasonable journalistic discretion was employed in the decision to exclude certain candidates.

Weber said he plans to take the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union as soon as he receives the information from the board attorney.

“I don’t give a damn where he takes it, quite honestly,” Bosco said. “I’m bound to abide by the determination of our attorneys. Mr. Weber could have just as easily filed his petition … and run. For whatever reason, he decided not to file his petition. He decided not to run.”

Both Bosco and DeCaro said it would have been unfair to official candidates who filed to run if Weber had been allowed to participate in the forum, and that it would have set a dangerous precedent.

“Election processes need to be upheld,” DeCaro said. “Protocol needs to be followed.”

Weber took issue with the fact that four members of the school board have relatives employed by the district, and added that there are “conflicts” within the administration. He said because he has long been a vocal opponent of nepotism, the current board would like to keep him out.

“This has nothing to do with keeping him off the board,” Bosco said. “There is a fundamental purpose here.”

Bosco said if Weber had been allowed access to the forum, future write-in candidates would also feel they had the same rights.

Weber also questioned the motives of the presidents’ board in excluding him from the Candidates Night, considering that there are three candidates up for the same number of seats.

“By not allowing me to participate in that forum, and not giving the voters a choice … that, to me, is a de facto endorsement of these three candidates.”

DeCaro refuted the claim.

“Absolutely not,” DeCaro said. “Our candidates forum is for official candidates, for candidates who filed their petitions on time. We at the Presidents’ Council just wanted to be fair to all involved. Nobody has anything against Mr. Weber. There was nothing personal about the decision.”

The candidates on the April 17 ballot for three available board seats this year are Abhishek K. Desai, Eugene Donofrio, David L. Josselyn and Ingrid F. Andrade. Andrade announced she has withdrawn from the race, but her name cannot be removed from the ballot.

The terms of John Allen, Linda Ault McLaren and Barbara Rossi are becoming available. None of three is seeking re-election.