Trustee claims board took illegal vote on change to election process

Trustee Tony Ruiz

Gavilan College trustees voted in closed session last month to change the way trustees are voted into office, confirmed Trustee Tony Ruiz, who represents the Hollister area on the board.
Six of the seven trustees voted 5-1 in closed session of the regularly scheduled July 8 meeting to change from “at-large” elections where all the voters in the district elect trustees to represent particular trustee areas to “district elections” where candidates are voted into office by voters in the individual trustee areas, Ruiz said. Trustee Laura Perry was the only board member absent from the discussion.
“It was simple,” Ruiz said. “We all voted to go to district elections – five of us. That was it, and it should have been announced in public.”
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, called the vote “pretty unique” and an “egregious violation” of the Brown Act, which outlines that public bodies must be “open and public,” actions may not be secret and that action taken in violation of open meeting laws can be voided.
The Brown Act permits closed-session discussions in specific situations, which include personnel matters; labor negotiations; strategies for legal action; and the acquisition, sale, lease or exchange of property, Ewert said. The act, however, requires trustees to provide an agenda to the public of the topics scheduled for discussion in closed session.
The act also outlines that actions in closed session must be reported to the public at the start of the public session of the meeting.
“I don’t know of any closed session exemption that exists in the Brown Act that would permit the trustees to discuss in closed session anything whatsoever having to do with the redistricting of the boundaries having to do with the community college district,” Ewert said.
He said the action violated the Brown Act on two counts: bringing a topic into closed session that was never allowed into closed session, and conducting a vote in closed session that was never shared with the public, Ewert said.
“What stands out in my mind as far as the egregiousness here is the violation of the notification of the public,” Ewert said. “Even if they mistakenly thought they could talk about this in closed session, they still failed to notify the public.”
Trustee Tom Breen and Board President Kent Child refused to discuss the closed-session agenda, citing that doing so would be a violation of board policy and the Brown Act.
“I don’t discuss closed session,” said Breen. “It violates the Brown Act if you talk about matters in closed session.”
Child also refused to comment on closed-session matters, but then noted that in order to make changes to how trustees are elected, the topic would have to appear on the agenda in open session at two meetings.
“There has been no action that is reportable out of any closed sessions dealing with that or any other matters,” Child said. “You do not take any actions in closed session with the exception of actions dealing with personnel, which are in closed session.”
Gavilan College Superintendent and President Steven Kinsella also wouldn’t comment on a closed-session matter and did not say whether trustees had held a closed-session vote about redistricting.
“Anything that has been discussed by the board of trustees is on a publicly available agenda,” he said.
Trustees have discussed the topic of redistricting before. In May 2011, a representative of the firm Lapkoff & Gobalet Demographic Research appeared before the board of trustees and explained that the district was vulnerable to being sued under the California Voting Rights Act. The representative recommended the district skip the California Voting Rights Act Assessment and transition directly into a voting “by district” approach.
When asked what prompted the call for a report several years ago, Kinsella did not volunteer specifics about conversations held among trustees at that time.
“I was asked to provide some services to the board of trustees and I did that,” Kinsella said.
For Ruiz, the examination of the trustee election process has become an issue of transparency.
“If there’s a vote, you’re supposed to tell people,” Ruiz said. “That’s the business of the public.”