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Updated: School Board President Claims Chamber Of Commerce Election Not Legit; Key Players Mum

Potosnak picked1

Board of Education president Ed Potosnak claims that his seat on the township Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors was denied him, and, he says, he wants to know why.


(Update: School district steps in to clarify that Potosnak is the school board’s representative to the Chamber. See update at bottom of story.)

The legitimacy of last Spring’s Franklin Township Chamber of Commerce executive board election has a surprising challenger: the Board of Education’s president.

School board president Ed Potosnak claims that he was purposely denied his position’s traditional seat on the Chamber’s Board of Directors and denied his vote for the executive committee members, including president.

Because of that, Potosnak said, the vote for the Chamber’s executive board should be done over, with him taking his seat as a voting director.

“I would highly reccomend that they look at this and they open it up for a revote,” he said. “If I’m feeling this way, I’m sure there are other folks who were not properly notified as well.”

Traditionally, the Board of Education president has served as a member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. Most recently, that seat was filled by former school board presidents Eva Nagy and Julia Presley.

In the past, the school board has notified the Chamber of its representative – when a new school board president was elected – and that person was approved by the Chamber’s Board of Directors.

But, Potosnak claims, he has been denied that traditional seat, and Chamber officials took the unusual step of recruiting a member of the school district administration to serve in his stead.

What’s not known – mainly because none of the key players are commenting – is why.

A Franklin Reporter & Advocate investigation – involving interviews with current and former school district administrators and a review of hundreds of emails obtained through Open Public Records Act requests – shows that even though the Chamber was notified at least twice that Potosnak was chosen by the school board as its representative to the Chamber, two members of the Chamber’s Board of Directors did, indeed, turn to the district to furnish an alternate representative.

That representative, Orvyl Wilson, the district’s director of school management, voted in the May 21 Chamber executive board election through which the organization’s president, two vice presidents, secretary and treasurer were chosen. Elected were Michael Harris of Investor’s Bank as president, Peter Stavrianidis of Venus Jewelers as 1st vice president, Rodney Robinson of Rich Planning Group as 2nd vice president, Nancy Topchev of Financial Resources Federal Credit Union as treasurer and Tiffany Delaney of the Franklin Township administration as secretary.

Wilson voted, even though his supervisor at the time, former interim schools Superintendent Lee Seitz, said in an email that it was his understanding that the position was to be “advisory” in nature and non-voting.

In fact, Seitz said in the email, if he had been told that the position was to have a vote, he would have directed the Chamber to Potosnak, as the board president.

The FR&A investigation showed that the directors actively engaged in the effort to bring on a school district liaison were Delaney, Franklin Township’s special projects manager, who serves at the township’s representative to the board, and former Chamber president Julia West Johnson.

Even Nagy, who is head of the Chamber’s bylaws committee and, as noted previously, is a former school board president and sat on the Chamber’s board in that capacity, went along with the move to bring Wilson on board, emails show.

Delaney has declined to comment for this story; West Johnson and Nagy have refused to respond to repeated requests for comment on why Wilson was brought in and why Potosnak was not made a Chamber board member.

Chronology of the Switch

Although the call for nominations for director and executive board nominations went out in late March 2015, the first indication of an effort to find a school representative other than Potosnak comes in an April 21, 2015, email from Delaney to MacAfee Road School principal Bill Grippo, in which Delaney asked Grippo if he’d be interested in serving on the Chamber as the district’s representative. There’s no indication of why Delaney looked to Grippo, other than what she wrote in the initial email to him.

“The by-laws dictate that there be a Board of Education liaison and you fulfill that requirement,” Delaney wrote. “All you need to do is send an email to the Nominating Committee Chair, Julia West Johnson … Simply provide a short bio and intent statement and you will be considered for a seat on the BOD.”

Chamber bylaws reviewed by the FR&A indicate that the Board of Education’s representative is to be appointed by the school board, and then approved by the Chamber’s directors. (The same is true for the township administration representative). There is no indication in those bylaws that a nomination letter is required for that seat, or that the Chamber directors may solicit representatives from the district.

Grippo responded later that morning, writing in an email to Delaney that West Johnson is a “long-time friend,” and instructing her to contact Seitz to seek permission for Grippo to serve on the Board of Directors.

“Yes, I can help, thanks for thinking of me!” Grippo wrote.

Delaney forwarded her email conversation to West Johnson later that day, after which West Johnson asked for Seitz’ contact information.

On April 28, 2015, West Johnson emailed Delaney that she had contacted Seitz, and that she was awaiting his response. No further emails between Delaney and West Johnson concerning the Board of Education’s seat on the Board of Directors were provided to the FR&A through its OPRA request.

Seitz, in emails and in an interview, acknowledged that he was contacted by the Chamber – in the interview he said he could not recall by whom, other than it was a woman, and in the email he simply mentions “the Chamber” – and asked to be the district’s liaison to the Chamber.

Grippo said that the focus changed from him to Seitz because the interim Superintendent thought the liaison should be “a central office person,” with which Grippo agreed.

Seitz said in an interview that he in turn recommended Wilson for the position because, Seitz said, his tenure as interim schools Superintendent was going to expire on July 1, and Wilson “knows the district better than I.”

Seitz said in the interview that he had served in a similar capacity for the Woodbridge Chamber of Commerce when he was that school district’s superintendent.

Seitz was more explicit about his expectations of the position in a June 25, 2015 email to Mary Clark, the district’s coordinator of policy and communications.

“As interim Superintendent of Schools, I was asked by the Chamber to be the District’s liaison to the Chamber Board of Directors…not the BOE liaison to the Chamber nor to be a member of the Chamber Board of Directors,” Seitz wrote. “At no time was I asked to represent the Board of Education or to vote on behalf of the Board of Education. I simply saw my role as liaison to the Chamber Board of Directors as providing District information to the Chamber…not representing the Board of Education nor voting on behalf of the Board of Education. Since my tenure was going to be up soon, I suggested Mr. Wilson who has been in the District for many years and understands the needs of the District.”

“Obviously,” Seitz continued, “if the Chamber had asked for a BOE representative with voting rights, I would have simply referred them to Mr. Potosnak.”

In preparing a statement from Seitz in response to a request for comment from the FR&A, Clark initially wrote: “Mr. Wilson has attended meetings of the Chamber of Commerce in an advisory role. That is to provide information about the district to the Chamber Board of Directors. Mr. Wilson’s participation in the vote for the new leadership of the Chamber of Commerce was an
oversight as his role is and should be purely advisory. It is our understanding that his vote did not affect the ultimate outcome of the election.”

In his edited version of that statement, which he emailed back to Clark, Seitz crossed out “was an oversight as his role is and should be purely advisory. It is our understanding that his vote did not affect the ultimate outcome of the election,” telling Clark that “(t)he vote was 5-4 so Orvyl’s vote made a difference.”

The last line of the statement released to the FR&A read, “Mr. Wilson’s participation in the vote for the new leadership of the Chamber of Commerce was at the direction of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.”

In an interview, Wilson said he was told by former Chamber president Leon Hughes that he would be voting when he arrived at the election meeting.

“When I attended the first meeting, I was informed that there was going to be a vote and that I needed to vote,” Wilson said. “I was led to believe that I should be voting. To me, I was not sitting in a board seat, so, I voted.”

Wilson said that since that meeting, “I have asked for some clarity because it’s my understanding that there are a couple of issues that are out there that I need some clarity on so I can decide what my course of action might be.”

Wilson said at the time of his interview that he had not heard back from the Chamber.

The Battle For Chamber President

The only contested race in the executive board election was for the president’s seat. Initially, the two candidates were Chamber director Hal Frankel and Hughes, the incumbent.

But, emails obtained by the FR&A show, changes to that began brewing in the middle of May.

It was after a May 12, 2015 conversation with Delaney that Michael Harris, who at the time was a Chamber director, threw his hat in the ring for the presidential nomination, according to a May 13 email from Delaney to Nagy and West Johnson.

“I spoke w/Michael yesterday afternoon and he expressed his interest in running,” Delaney wrote. “This will take the attention away from the obvious tension between Leon and Hal. Also, because something else seems to be brewing in the background—this perhaps will throw a monkey wrench into those plans.”

Harris emailed West Johnson on May 12 and asked if it was too late to submit his name for nomination, to which West Johnson replied that he had missed the formal deadline for nominations, but added that he could be nominated from the floor at the election meeting.

West Johnson emailed Nagy and Delaney about what she told Harris, to which Nagy replied, “Yes, Julia. That is the best decision and answer. The drama goes on. Interesting.”

In an email to the FR&A, Harris – who has served as a Chamber director for several years – noted that an executive board election had not been held in four years, and said that he decided to run “confident I could at least do a better job than either of the candidates running.”

At that May 21 meeting, Hughes dropped out of the race and instead nominated Harris from the floor. Harris eventually won the election by a 5-4 vote.

It’s not known why Hughes decided to drop out of the race; he also has refused to comment for this story.

Nagy is the head of the Chamber’s policy committee. While none of the emails between Delaney and West Johnson obtained by the FR&A which involve the search for a school district representative include her as an addressee, Nagy did welcome Wilson as a new Chamber director the day after the May 12 director’s meeting, at which Wilson was voted in as a director.

In the May 13, 2015 email to Wilson, Nagy wrote, “Hi Orvyl. Since you are now officially member (sic) of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors here is an email you need to get. Your email is not on our system yet. Sorry.”

The email she referred to contained the executive board candidates’ list and a notice of a special meeting to elect the executive board. In addition to voting Wilson in as a director, the directors on May 12 decided to change procedure and elect the executive committee prior to holding the election for the Board of Directors. It was usually done the other way around.

Nagy also serves with Wilson – and Hughes – as a member of the Board of Trustees on the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Foundation, of which she is also the president. The foundation holds an annual breakfast on Martin Luther King Day and raises money for scholarships for Franklin High School graduates.

Harris: Chamber Didn’t Know Potosnak’s Status

Harris maintained in his emails that the Chamber was never informed that Potosnak was to be the Board of Education’s representative to the Chamber.

But emails obtained by the FR&A show that the Chamber was notified at least twice that Potosnak was to be the school board’s representative.

In a Feb. 12, 2015 email from Potosnak to Hughes, Potosnak wrote, “Mr. Hughes, I look forward to serving with the Chamber as Franklin BOE President. In the event that I am unable to attend Nancy LaCorte (cc’d) is my designee and authorized to take my place.”

And in a June 25, 2015 email to Seitz and Wilson, the school district’s Clark wrote, “ In February I called to let the Chamber know that Ed was now Board President. I spoke with Anna there. I told her that according to my information Ed was the Chamber of Commerce Liaison and that Nancy LaCorte was the alternate. She said that she would record that information. I recall at the time that Julia was listed on their web site, but I honestly don’t recall in what position they had Julia listed (BOE liaison or on the Board of Directors).”

Clark was referring to school board immediate past president Julia Presley. The “Ana” to whom she referred is Ana Frankel. the Chamber’s administrative assistant.

Wilson’s election to the Chamber’s directors apparently came as a surprise to Frankel. In a June 19, 2015 email to Frankel, Delaney asked her to add Wilson’s email address to the “directors” distribution list because, she said, he had not been receiving communications.

In her response, Frankel asked, “when was Orvyl Wilson formally voted in as a Director? In the past, the current President of the Board of Education has served on the Chamber’s Board of Directors. How and why was Orvyl Wilson chosen?”

“Lee Seitz recommended that Orvyl serve,” Delaney responded. “He was voted in as a Director at the May 12th meeting.”

Potosnak: Chamber Should Revote

“I think one could definitely question the legitimacy” of the election, Potosnak said. “Folks shouldn’t be afraid” of a revote “unless something bad happened. If the right outcome happened, the same result will happen no matter if you did it 100 times.”

Potosnak said he has not been able to reach Chamber leadership.

“I’ve asked for copies of the minutes, made phone calls to leadership and gotten no return calls,” he said. “If I as a member can’t get that information, that’s really sad. How is the public supposed to trust this institution?”

Although they may not have responded to him, some Chamber members – including West Johnson – were aware that Potosnak was calling.

In a June 8, 2015 email to members of the Chamber’s nominating committee, which included Nagy – and blind copied to Delaney – West Johnson wrote, “the Franklin Board of Education president has called me; based on conversation with Anna, I think it is about him serving on the board however we already have a person representing the schools. Kind of sticky because he’s the board president and the new superintendent, the person our representative reports to, doesn’t come on until July. How should I handle?”

No response was included in the emails obtained by the FR&A.

Potosnak maintains that the Chamber knew he was to be the school board representative, but ignored that.

“They knew I was the liaison, I got the bill, with my name on it,” he said. “They didn’t need to call the interim superintendent to get someone to vote for them. Maybe this new president will deviate from this cast of characters who have installed him. History tells us that elections that occur like this don’t result in independent types of candiates who buck those who put them in power. But it is possible he’ll understand the opportunity and the need for change. That’s my hope.”

Update: The township school district’s Clark wrote an Aug. 13, 2015 letter to Harris to “remind” him that “the Franklin Township Board of Education representative to the Franklin Township Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors is Board of Education President, Mr. Edward Potosnak, III.”

Clark noted that board vice president Nancy LaCorte is Potosnak’s alternate, and that the two were named as such at the board’s Jan. 15, 2015 meeting.

“Please let Mr. Potosnak know of any upcoming meeting dates or other responsibilities that he may have,” Clark wrote.

In an Aug. 18 interview, Wilson confirmed that he was no longer the district’s representative to the Chamber.


 

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Editor’s Note: Nagy, West Johnson and Delaney are welcome to respond to the questions posed to them by the FR&A. Their answers will be incorporated in updates.

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