District may have violated Brown Act | TahoeDailyTribune.com

District may have violated Brown Act

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

By adding a report on the upcoming fund-raising efforts for a dilapidated athletic track at the beginning of its meeting, the Lake Tahoe Unified School District Board of Education may have violated an open meeting law.

After Board President Lennie Schwartz called the 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting into action, Superintendent Diane Scheerhorn made the agenda addition in the “announcements, correspondence and reports” section. The revised agenda was then voted and approved unanimously by the five-member board.

“The Brown Act covers any discussion, deliberation or action and discussion implies information is going to be heard and conveyed to the board members,” said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for California Newspaper Publishers Association.

The added report was given by Steve Morales, district facilities manager, about South Tahoe Middle School teachers wanting to raise money to fix the track. It was made after two reports listed on the agenda were given — one on energy- saving measures, the other about a cellular contract with AT&T.

No action was taken on the reports.

Ewert said there are certain provisions that can be used by school boards when adding items to the agenda. The first is if a natural disaster or a “crippling” work stoppage takes place and items could be added by a majority vote or unanimously if it’s a five-member board; the second is if the agenda item was not known before the agenda was printed and action needed to be taken, Ewert said.

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The Brown Act protects the public from officials conducting business in private. It states a regular meeting agenda must include brief descriptions of business items and be posted 72 hours before the meeting begins.

“I think the Legislature made it pretty clear,” Ewert said.

If violated, the district attorney or any interested person can take legal action. If action is taken on an item not on the agenda and it can be shown a board member deprived the public of information, the board member could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Schwartz said he learned of the addition of the track report when Scheerhorn announced it.

“It may have been inadvertently left off but you’ll have to talk to the superintendent about that,” Schwartz said.

Scheerhorn, after talking with the district’s attorney, does not believe there was a violation of the Brown Act.

Line items, including the superintendent and board of education reports, don’t have brief descriptions underneath them. Morales’ did.

She also cited the second paragraph of subsection 54954.2 of the Brown Act, titled “Agenda requirements; Regular meeting” which states, among other things: “In addition, on their own initiative or in response to questions posed by the public, a member of a legislative body or its staff may ask a question for clarification, make a brief announcement or make a brief report on his or her activities.”

“My opinion is there wasn’t a violation,” said Allen Vinson, an attorney who helped make an informational Brown Act packet for the school board. “I wasn’t at the meeting, but my understanding is the comment by Mr. Morales was a brief announcement.”

Vinson said even though the other reports by Morales were listed, the report on the track didn’t need to be.

“I don’t think that prohibits someone from announcing something,” Vinson said. “No action was taken. It was just an announcement to a district activity.”

Ewert contended that a retirement party would be suitable for a brief announcement but something considered part of the ordinary course of business would not.

Ewert was also concerned with a description being absent when El Dorado County Superintendent Vicki Barber and Deputy Superintendent Francie Heim gave a detailed Power Point presentation of the state budget during a superintendent’s report on Feb. 11.

“In that kind of situation, that should have been given a little bit more detail so the public understands what staff is going to brief the board on,” Ewert said. “It depends what the circumstances are that dictate the amount of description on the agenda.”

— E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com