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53 alleged Brown Act violations

By: Katherne Minkiewicz
March 9, 2018

The school board for the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District was notified early last week by Western Association of Schools and Colleges member and education consultant, Larry Holguin, of a mammoth amount of alleged Brown Act violations that span over eight years of school board meetings.

Holguin first mentioned the alleged violations at a Feb. 20 school board meeting during public comment where he expressed his concerns. The Voice obtained copies of the hefty stack of so-called violations, many of which are for not approving school board meeting minutes, not approving them in a timely manner and for providing an unreasonably short amount of time for public comment.

Under the California Brown Act, which governs public access for city council, county supervisor, school board meetings and meetings conducted by other legislative bodies, meeting minutes must be open to the public and posted for at least 10 days as soon as possible.  

However, Holguin alleges that there are 51 instances of meeting minutes not being approved and published for the public. The most recent so-called violation of lack of approval and posting of meeting minutes is from the Feb. 13 school board meeting and the oldest one going as far back as November of 2011. He also alleges that these supposed violations are also in violation of California Code 54950, which stipulates that the public does not give their public servants the right to withhold certain information from them or to decide for them what information is OK or not OK for them to know. In other words, “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” the code states.

One of the most recent notices that was sent to School Board President, Tracy Farrell reads,

“Demand is made to cure or correct the following violation from the 11/13/17 Special Board Meeting: The Minutes have never been approved and posted online as required in Board Policy.” This similar notification goes on for 50 more pages, which were also sent to California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra.

Upon searching the school district website, minutes are posted for more recent meetings, such as Dec. 19 and 22, 2017, however, minutes for November through October are missing, as well as minutes from an April 18 2017, March 14 and Feb. 21, 2017 meeting. Again, minutes are missing from September 2015 through November 2015, meetings that are well over three years old and have yet to be posted. 

“We announced it to the public so it’s not a back handed slap, they knew about it,” Holguin said of the notification.

Holguin also spoke at the Feb. 20 meeting regarding the so-called violations and mentioned his concerns about a lack of adequate transparency and communication between the board and the public.

“I can honestly admit that as a retired school teacher and district administrator of over 40 years in California, I have never observed such a curiously inept organization … One of my topics has been a severe lack of communication and organization on meaningful procedures. Over the past six years, two thirds of the meeting minutes have never been formally approved, minutes were approved as late as a year to a year and a half later,” Holguin said. “Earlier tonight for example, you approved minutes from Dec. 20, 2016. Is this incompetence or are you hiding something?” he asked.

And while some of the minutes that were said to be in violation of not being posted, such as the Dec. 22, 2017 minutes were eventually recently posted, it had taken around two months to get posted, which does not seem to be a timely manner. According to Holguin the only meeting minutes that seemed to have been approved in a timely fashion, were the ones that included information regarding the OK for the superintendent’s increase in pay.

The Brown Act stipulates that minutes must be made available to the public “As soon as possible.” The school board policy also states that, “The superintendent or designee shall distribute a copy of the ‘unapproved’ minutes of the previous meetings with the agenda for the next regular meeting or as soon as practicable.” 

School Board Trustee Tim Nonn seemed concerned about the allegations and said maintaining fluid and fair communication between the board itself and the public is important.

“One of the roles of the (board) president is to facilitate communications… and I think the minutes are a symptom of a larger problem and the larger problem is the lack of transparency around crucial information and decision making and it demonstrates this concern about secrecy,” Nonn said. “And the question I’ve been asking myself is, why is there this lack of transparency?”  

Yet, both Nonn and Holguin believe that malfeasance could be the answer to this question. Malfeasance can simply be defined as, “Wrongdoing, especially by a public official.” 

“It says on our district website that they don’t have to keep records on health and safety (in regards to an IEPP plan) whereas, in board bylaws it says we have to keep those records for a year. So they are deliberately contravening board bylaws around the health and safety of employees and that is an example of malfeasance,” Nonn said. “And I don’t think the lack of transparency is just being done for the lack of secrecy.” 

The other two supposed Brown Act violations that were included in the mound of documents, includes supposedly giving and an, “Unreasonably short period of time for public comment.” Meetings prior to Feb. 2, 2018 were given five minutes for public comment, however, the comment period was changed to three minutes. The change was included in the updated board policy, however, it is not until page 56 that the change is mentioned. Additionally, the Dec. 22, 2017 special board meeting supposedly stated the wrong location for the meeting, “Making it untenable for the handicapped members of the public and of the Board.” Brown Act rules and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act state that, “If a meeting facility is inaccessible, the meeting must be moved to an accessible facility.” 

Holguin also claims that the special meeting was not recorded and that board members stated to the public, “This is our meeting, this is not your meeting.” Indeed, the video of that Dec. 22 special meeting is not posted on the school district website.

The Voice reached out to School Board President Tracy Farrell for a comment on the numerous allegations, however, Farrell did not respond in time for publication. Superintendent Robert Haley did respond to Holguin’s claims in a letter, saying, “To begin, it is insufficient to just allege something violates the Brown Act… without providing specificity,” and in addressing the moving of the Dec. 22 meeting wrote, “The agenda states that the meeting with take place at 7165, Burton Ave., Rohnert Park, CA and telephonically at 290, Hammond Dr., Auburn, CA.” In regards to altering time allotted to the public to speak, he wrote, “At is regular board meeting in December 2017, the board of trustees voted to approve an updated Board Policy 9323 that lowered the time per speaker for public comment from five minutes to three minutes.”

The letter also addressed the alleged instance of not posting meeting minutes and “In summary, believes the occurrences listed in your notices do not constitute violations of the Brown Act.”

If these supposed Brown Act violations go back for more than four years, why hasn’t anyone brought them to the board’s attention before? Holguin believes that it could be complacency and trust that many community members often put in our elected officials.

Be that as it may, an avid Rohnert Park community participant, Chrissa Gillies, said while some of the meeting minutes are posted, some are not approved, which is the crux of the problem.

“Whether Haley believes he has to post the board meeting minutes online or not, the fact is that most of the minutes from the past six years have never been approved, which is clear violation of board policy,” Gillies said.

However, Holguin alleges that there are 51 instances of meeting minutes not being approved and published for the public. Pull quote