After more than five years of legal back and forth, the East Hampton School District’s ongoing battle with Sandpebble Builders will finally get its day in court.
At Tuesday night’s East Hampton School Board meeting, the board president, George Aman, made the announcement. “We will bring Sandpebble to jury trial within a year,” he said. “It’s the best outcome the public and the community can reasonably expect.”
“We wrestled with this issue for a long time, and we feel like we should take the advice of our counsel,” Mr. Aman said yesterday. “We have confidence that the best thing to do is to follow their advice and let it run its course and go to trial.”
At issue is a multimillion-dollar contract for a school construction project that dates back to April 2002. When Sandpebble Builders, a construction company based in Southampton, initially began negotiations with the district, the project was slated to cost $18 million. Eventually, it ballooned to upwards of $80 million.
Before construction began, however, the board dropped Sandpebble in favor of another builder. There apparently remains a question over the validity of their agreement. In January 2007, Sandpebble’s owner, Victor Canseco, sued, alleging breach of contract and seeking $3.75 million in damages.
The school district then filed its own lawsuit, essentially suing Sandpebble in anticipation of being sued.
In the intervening years, what with numerous appeals, legal bills have mounted. All told, according to Mr. Aman, the district has spent around $2.8 million on the lawsuit, and with the prospect of a forthcoming jury trial, costs will continue to rise.
The board recently retained Steven Pinks of Pinks, Arbeit, and Nemeth, a Hauppauge-based law firm that Mr. Aman said was “not only located on the island, but not as expensive and would ultimately serve us better.” A phone call to Mr. Pinks was not immediately returned.
Stephen Angel of the Riverhead firm Esseks, Hefter, and Angel, has represented Sandpebble since 2006. He said yesterday that he had nothing to say about the school board’s decision to go to trial.
“I’m neither happy nor sad,” said Mr. Angel. “It’s the inexorable result of a lawsuit. It’s going forward.”
Board members would not comment either. Since discussion of the Sandpebble lawsuit took place during the board’s executive sessions, members feel precluded from talking about it. Executive sessions are meetings held behind closed doors, typically between school board members and their attorneys. The New York State Open Meetings Law permits these closed sessions when they are related to “proposed, pending, or current litigation.”
On Sept. 11, the school board convened a special meeting at 6 p.m. The previous Friday afternoon, Kerri Stevens, the East Hampton district clerk, had e-mailed local newspapers to say that “it is not necessary to be there as the Board will immediately adjourn into Executive Session to discuss legal matters.”
According to minutes released on Tuesday, the board did immediately adjourn for executive session, to discuss “legal matters pertaining to Sandpebble,” along with Superintendent of Schools Richard Burns and Mr. Pinks.
After meeting in the closed-door session for over an hour, the board reconvened for an unannounced work session to discuss board goals and the superintendent’s evaluation process. However, because of the notice from Ms. Stevens, no members of the press or public were in attendance.
Mr. Burns could not be reached for comment, but Mr. Aman agreed yesterday that school boards may not declare the convening of an executive session without giving its specifics — whether, for example, a personnel matter or a pending lawsuit.
“The community has a right to know, and we try to live up to that,” said Mr. Aman. “We don’t like to have unannounced meetings when we don’t need to.”