February 11, 2008
IN THE MATTER OF THE SUSPENSION OF SHARON KIGHT FROM THE BRICK TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, OCEAN COUNTY PURSUANT TO N.J.S.A. 18A:12-29(C).
On appeal from the State Board of Education, Docket Nos. C18-05 and C19-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued December 19, 2007
Before Judges Lisa and Simonelli.
Appellant, Sharon Kight, a member of the Brick Township Board of Education, appeals from a final decision of the State Board of Education (Board) affirming the decision of the School Ethics Commission (Commission) finding that appellant violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1e of the School Ethics Act, and affirming the two-month suspension from the Board of Education imposed by the Acting Commissioner of Education (Commissioner). We affirm.
When the public portion of the March 17, 2005 Board of Education meeting concluded, and the Board broke before going into executive session, appellant, admittedly upset by comments made during the public meeting by Robert Lanzieri, a member of the public, approached Lanzieri. According to Lanzieri, she acted in an aggressive manner, engaged in physical contact with him, angrily berated him, and threatened him. Lanzieri filed a complaint, charging that appellant violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1e, which prohibits a board of education member from "tak[ing] any private action that may compromise the board."
The Commission conducted an evidentiary hearing on November 22, 2005. Appellant and Lanzieri, each represented by counsel, testified, as did several other eyewitnesses. In its decision of January 24, 2006, the Commission reviewed the testimony of the various witnesses, some of which was contradictory, and made these factual findings and conclusions:
The weight of the evidence shows that Ms. Kight approached Mr. Lanzieri in an aggressive manner, screamed at him and threatened him. There is also evidence to show that she made some type of physical contact with Mr. Lanzieri. The evidence also shows that her actions have had an impact on both Mr. Lanz[ie]ri and Mr. Dubrosky, who do not feel comfortable speaking at Board meetings. The Commission finds that such aggressive actions had the potential to compromise the Board because the actions hurt the integrity of the Board and intimidated the public from coming forward and addressing the Board. Therefore, the Commission finds that Ms. Kight violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) when she took private action in confronting Mr. Lanzieri in a verbal and physical manner regarding his comments during the public comment session at the March 17, 2005 Board meeting.
The Commission recommended imposition of a two-month suspension.
Jurisdiction for imposition of a sanction rests with the Commissioner. On March 1, 2006, after having "fully considered the nature of the offense and weighed the effects of aggravating and mitigating circumstances," the Commissioner found "no cause to disturb the Commission's recommended penalty in this matter." She accordingly imposed as a sanction a two-month suspension.
Appellant filed an administrative appeal with the Board which, after "a thorough review of the record," issued a final decision on November 1, 2006 affirming the Commission's finding of a violation and the Commissioner's sanction. This appeal followed.
Appellant argues that, contrary to the findings and conclusions of the administrative agencies, the Board misapplied N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1e, her suspension constituted a violation of her constitutional rights, and the sanction imposed was disproportionately severe. Essentially, appellant contends this was a relatively insignificant exchange of words, that because the testimony was to some extent contradictory the finding of physical contact was not supported by the record, and that the incident was not of such a magnitude as would have a chilling effect on Lanzieri or other members of the public from attending and speaking at Board meetings or would in any other way undermine the integrity of the Board.
Appellate courts have a limited role in reviewing the decisions of administrative agencies. We will not reverse an agency decision unless it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole. In re Distribution of Liquid Assets Upon Dissolution of the Union County Reg'l High Sch. Dist. No. 1, 168 N.J. 1, 10-11 (2001); In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999); R & R Mktg., L.L.C. v. Brown-Forman Corp., 158 N.J. 170, 175 (1999); Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210-11 (1997). The scope of review of an administrative decision is "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record' considering 'the proofs as a whole,' with due regard to the opportunity of the one who heard the witnesses to judge of their credibility." In re Taylor, supra, 158 N.J. at 656 (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964))).
Applying this highly deferential standard, we have no occasion to interfere with the Board's final decision. Appellant's arguments do not warrant further discussion. See R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D) and (E).
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