WILKES-BARRE – If Wilkes-Barre Area School Board member Robert Corcoran wants to live in Europe and still vote at board meetings, he almost certainly legally can.
In fact if he doesn't, his fellow board members would have the legal right to remove him from the board before his term expires in December.
Corcoran did not attend Monday's monthly board meeting, and after adjournment Board President John Quinn said Corcoran, a Wilkes-Barre optometrist and U.S. Air Force veteran, has taken a civilian job with the U.S. military in Germany and wants to continue to participate in board meetings via video conferencing. Quinn said he does not know if Corcoran's move is temporary or open-ended.
If Corcoran sticks to that plan, he will be sailing tricky, though not uncharted – nor even locally unprecedented – waters.
Solicitor Ray Wendolowski noted Corcoran and any other member has a right to participate by teleconference, thanks to a 1992 state Supreme Court ruling in Babac vs. the state Milk Marketing Board. The court ruled the board did not violate the state Sunshine Act when it voted on a rate issue by telephone conference call, with two of three members physically absent.
Locally, Dennis Gochoel retained his seat on the Dallas School Board in 2006 after being called into active duty from the Navy Reserves as an engineer. While he promised to try to participate in meetings via teleconference, it took six months before everything aligned and he was able to cast a vote that way.
Wendolowski noted someone could challenge whether the milk board ruling applies in this case, but said the decision was so broad it would probably hold up.
Participating in the meetings via telephone or video conference would be important in staving off a second legal issue: Chronic absenteeism would allow fellow board members to replace Corcoran. Section 319 of the School Code says if any board member neglects or refuses to attend two successive regular meeting of the school board … unless detained by sickness or prevented by necessary absence from the district ... the remaining members of the board may declare this office as director vacant.
The law doesn't require the board to make such a replacement, and a board member could challenge such an ouster. The option was not exercised by the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board in 2009 when board member Brian Dunn stopped attending meetings in April, shortly before being charged with public corruption by federal agents.
The board took no action out of concerns Dunn could challenge the move and cause legal headaches. There are at least four court cases since 1958 in which such an ouster was overturned by a court.
Wendolowski said the legal requirement most likely to trip up Corcoran's plans is residence; a person must live in the district for which he is a board member.
But even such residency requirements can be elastic, Wendolowski said. For jurisdictional matters in court, a domicile is where you intend to live, not where you lay your head, he said. So if Corcoran maintains a local residence, he might be fulfilling legal obligations.
Wendolowski said he is following a board directive to research the matter and see if there is anything in the school or election laws that would preclude Corcoran from remaining a member while in Germany with a local home declared as his residence.
Corcoran was elected to the board in 2009, and if he wants to stay in the position, he must seek re-election in this spring's primary.
That process doesn't begin for a month. The first day to start circulating petitions to get on the spring ballot is Feb. 19.