Yuba City: Questions arise about possible open government violation in proposed raise for community college chancellor

The Yuba Community College District board may have violated California’s Brown Act which requires the board to hold discussions about salary increases in open session. -DB

Daily Democrat
January 28, 2010
By Erin Tracy

A decision to approve a salary hike for the Yuba Community College District chancellor might be considered insult to injury for those impacted by budget cuts, but is also an apparent violation of the Brown Act.

At its Jan. 20 meeting, Chancellor Nicki Harrington said she received a performance evaluation during which the board came to consensus on a $29,282 raise. The action was reported out in open session, and the board will vote to approve the salary increase at its Feb. 10 board meeting.

California’s Brown Act, a law that requires public access to different types of meetings, states, “Closed sessions … shall not include discussion or action on proposed compensation except for a reduction of compensation that results from the imposition of discipline.”

Each member of a legislative body who is found to have violated any portion of the Brown Act is guilty of a misdemeanor.

The district’s lawyer — Mark Williams from Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost — cited a 1983 case, San Diego Union v. City Council in defense of the alleged violation. The Fourth District Appellate court ruled in this case that salaries of non-elected officials can be discussed in closed session.

California Newspaper Association Legal Counsel Jim Ewert said the case precedes the changes made to the Brown Act 11 years later, and therefore negates the case law.

He said the 1994 clause, Government Code 54957, pursuant to acceptable closed session items, is designed to “allow the public to see and hear and comment on what’s going on.”

Staff, faculty and students will likely on a 12 percent raise that was agreed upon in the wake of $4 million in cuts to the district that includes Woodland Community College.

The district was able to restore 28 of 59 classified employee positions on the chopping block through furloughs, a 1 percent reduction in the reserve budget and other concessions. Of the 16 positions in jeopardy at WCC, five positions were saved and five people were laid off, working their last day Jan. 22. The remaining employees agreed to retirement or reassignment.

One reassigned employee, Minerva Santillan, spend her holidays moving from Woodland to Clear Lake to accept a position as a student services technician. For three weeks she made the 162-mile round-trip commute while she finished the remainder of her duties in Woodland.

What makes her efforts all the more trying is, “There is no guarantee that I get to stay here,” she said.

The uncertainty for her employment and many of her friends at the college makes Harrington’s raise all the more “ridiculous,” Santillan said.

Associated Students President Juan Cervantes called the move “atrocious,” adding that the nearly $30,000 raise is equivalent to two adjunct professor positions.

Principals of compensation for Community College Chancellors dictates they receive a 3 percent raise for each year of service. Harrington said she never asked for the wage increase and has declined a raise for the past three years. The 12 percent raise was made in an effort to bring the position up to par with other districts, YCCD Spokesman Adrian Lopez said.

In the 2008-09 school year Harrington was the lowest paid community college chancellor in the state with an annual salary of $217,439. With this raise she will now rank at 33 percent of the salary scale, or $249,282.

Harrington also said she will donate 3 percent of her total salary, $7,478, back to the general fund.

Copyright 2010 Daily Democrat