A state administrative law judge has reinstated a Piscataway school board member whose colleagues removed him last month for missing three consecutive meetings.
Ralph Johnson maintained that his absences were due to a change in his work schedule. He is an Essex County Corrections officer and Johnson said the coronavirus pandemic led to an increased workload.
“The evidence, however, reveals that Johnson has attended 85% of the Board meetings during his tenure,” wrote Judge Kim Belin in an opinion released on Friday. “He had trouble attending several meetings during an unprecedented global pandemic and state of emergency which required that he work longer hours without breaks.”
Belin said that Johnson’s removal “undermines the will of the public who elected him and unduly smears his reputation.”
One of the three meetings counted as an non-appearance was in April, when the school board chose not to count him as present even though he was there for 13 minutes before internet connectivity issues dropped him from the online gathering.
“The board offers no rational basis for its determination that thirteen minutes does not qualify as attendance at a board meeting, especially under the circumstances presented here where absent the technical difficulties, Johnson would have remained on the call,” Belin wrote in her opinion. “Indeed, following the Board’s logic would render the statute as a ‘gotcha’ law wherein a Board member can be removed for committing a violation without being advised of the conditions which will warrant their removal.”
Acting state Commissioner of Education Kevin Dehmer has 45 days to accept, reject or modify Belin’s ruling. No action at al would keep the judge’s decision intact.
Johnson was removed on July 9, two days after he lost the Democratic primary for township council.
“It is unfortunate that this fundamentally anti-democratic move had to be litigated at all, particularly during this dark hour in our national politic,” said Yael Bromberg, one of Johnson’s attorneys. “One would hope that the abandonment of the rule of law nationally would shed a light on the need to protect democracy at home on the local level.”