Southern California: Fontana school board president justifies silencing citizens during public comments

The Fontana Unified School District board president said he stopped citizens from talking during public comment period because according to California Education Code Section 7054, citizens could not discuss district issues at school board meetings to promote ballot measures or political candidates. -db

Fontana Herald News
August 26, 2010
By Alejandro Cano

It has happened at least twice at School Board meetings in the last few months: Fontana Unified School District Board President Gus Hawthorn interrupting people during public comments, saying he would turn the microphone off if the speaker’s topic is not changed.

Some observers have claimed that Hawthorn’s actions are a violation of the Brown Act, which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

However, Hawthorn defended himself by saying he is following the California Education Code.

On Aug. 18, Jess Vizcaino, a representative of Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto), was interrupted by Hawthorn as soon as he began praising the work Baca has done for the region.

In May, then-San Bernardino County controller candidate Alfred Palazzo was also stopped when he offered some ideas on how the district could save money.

Hawthorn said in both instances the speakers were “politicking,” and if this practice was allowed, he could face penalties of up to a year in jail and fines not exceeding $1,000, because he would be violating California Education Code Section 7054.

“The Fontana Unified School District board meetings are a limited public forum, which means that the public has a right to speak, but only as it relates to educational business or board business. It is not a general public forum where anything and everything can be discussed,” said Hawthorn. “It is really a board business meeting conducted in public so that members of the community, and anyone else who is interested, can understand how and why things are done. It is not a forum given to politicians to make campaign speeches for their political offices.”

Section 7054 states that “no school district or community college district funds, services, supplies, or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate, including, but not limited to, any candidate for election to the governing board of the district.”

In other words, “the boardroom cannot be used to promote or sanction a candidate for office,” added Hawthorn.

“This is not a Brown Act situation,” he said.

The Brown Act, authored by Assemblymember Ralph M. Brown, is a series of statutes that intends to create transparency in governing bodies, whether they are county government, city council, school board, college districts, commissions, committees, task forces and advisory bodies, among others.

Since its inception in 1953, the Brown Act has been a significant rule for government leaders and a violation of it could bring serious consequences.

Fontana’s interim mayor, Frank Scialdone, learned about the subject days after he shut the microphone off when Edgar Montes, a local activist, was speaking during the public comments section of a City Council meeting in July.

Scialdone later apologized during another City Council meeting, and Montes accepted the apology.

“At least he understands that shutting the microphone off is a clear violation; they should learn this in Government 101,” said Montes.

Meanwhile, Hawthorn emphasized that he is “compelled to strictly follow the law,” meaning he will not allow anybody to make political remarks during school board meetings.

“My intent is to let anyone speak at the board meeting as long as what they say is legal. Individuals have been allowed to speak even when I did not agree with what they were saying or knew that their remarks were inaccurate at best or false at worst,” said Hawthorn. “This will always be the case as long as I am board president.”

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