District Attorney: No open meeting violation by Ross Valley school board

District Attorney: No open meeting violation by Ross Valley school board

After a school board trustee resigned concerned about possible violations of the Brown Act, the district attorney absolved the board of violating the act but suggested that better documentation and procedures in closed sessions would improve transparency. -DB

Marin Independent Journal
June 11, 2009
By Rob Rogers

An investigation by the Marin County District Attorney’s Office has found no evidence that the Ross Valley School District board violated the state’s open meeting law.

However, investigators recommended that the school board change the way it does business during its closed-door sessions, suggesting that trustees conduct the conclaves more like public meetings and less like private discussions.

“The taking of minutes would eliminate any misinterpretation of the discussions held in closed session,” wrote Inspector Michael McBride of the District Attorney’s Office in his June 4 letter to the board. “Motions and votes should be taken on issues rather than coming to a consensus on issues. This will ensure a clear record of actions to be taken and reported out in issues.”

McBride’s investigation came as a result of a May 7 complaint filed by former Ross Valley Trustee Jeanne Thompson, who resigned from the board the following week based on concerns that her fellow board members were acting in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act by failing to report the decisions they reached during several closed-session meetings.

State law allows public officials to meet in closed session in order to discuss staff hiring and performance, pending litigation, employee negotiations and real property negotiations. However, officials must report action taken in closed session, including who voted and how, during an open public meeting.

The District Attorney’s investigators found no evidence that the Ross Valley board had failed to report decisions reached in closed session – though McBride noted this was in part because the trustees did not document their private meetings.

“Several board members felt that they did not take any action during these closed sessions,” McBride wrote. “What complicates my evaluation is the fact that the board does not take minutes in closed session. … None of the other trustees had any recollection or notes indicating that items on the agenda were discussed. Again, minutes taken during the closed session would have assisted me in my investigation on this issue.”

Board President Sharon Sagar said the trustees would host and attend a workshop on the Brown Act “in the next few months,” as the District Attorney’s Office recommended. Yet Sagar stopped short of accepting the report’s other recommendations, noting that the school district’s own attorney recommends against keeping records during private meetings.

“The Ross Valley School District board does not have a history of taking closed session minutes in the last 15-plus years that I have been involved with the district (or prior to that time that I am aware of) and it has never been an issue previously,” Sagar wrote in a letter sent Thursday to district staff and parents. “I am committed to ensuring that we will continue to do everything possible to adhere to all Brown Act regulations.”

On Tuesday, the board appointed former Trustee Conn Hickey to succeed Thompson for the remainder of her term, which ends Dec. 3.

“The trustees cited Conn’s previous experience as the reason they were selecting him for the interim position,” district Superintendent Bryce Sumnick said. “There will be a lot for him to get up to speed on very quickly.”

Hickey, who served on the board from 2003-2007, was the only one of four interested candidates – including Chris Carlucci, Rick Holland and Heidi Weller – who has not expressed interest in running for one of the two vacant seats on the board in November. Neither Thompson nor Trustee Gina Feiner plans to run for re-election.

Feiner, who was elected to the board in 2005 along with Thompson, said the latter’s resignation had nothing to do with her decision not to run again.

“I’ve been away from my family and my kids, and I think I want to focus more on that before they leave the house,” Feiner said. “I still plan to serve the schools in different capacities, volunteering and participating as much as I can.”

Copyright 2009 Marin Independent Journal