School board met at private home
The public’s business should be public, but how public is a meeting held in a private home?
California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act, doesn’t preclude the use of a private home, but it doesn’t exactly endorse it either. In July, the Lake Tahoe Unified School District Board of Education held a special meeting to evaluate themselves. Board members thought the issue would be considered a private personnel issue, and therefore closed to the public. The board’s legal advisors quickly informed them that as members of a legislative body any discussion on their performance must be public.
The meeting was duly noticed 24 hours in advance, and an agenda was posted at the district office. The agenda stated that dinner and the board’s self-evaluation would be conducted at board member Stacy Romagnolo’s home. School board candidate Sue Novasel was the only member of the public to attend.
“It was pretty obvious that it was a last minute meeting and not a planned thing,” Novasel said. “It was shocking to see things run like this.”
Novasel said she believes more people might have attended the meeting if it was conducted at a more public arena. Jonnie Crawford, another school board candidate, said she also felt the meeting location didn’t provide enough access to the public.
“I feel very strongly about the public’s business being held in private homes or restaurants. It discourages the public from attending. We have how many school sites and a board room, and we have to go to a private home,” Crawford questioned. “I don’t know where (Romagnolo) lives, but I do know where the district office is.”
Linda Mendizabal, school board president, said it was never the board’s intention to exclude the public.
“The meeting was during the summer when the board room wouldn’t normally be open. We talked about if we could have it off site. I’d hate to make a custodian come at a time they don’t have to, to close up the building,” Mendizabal said.
The board room was opened to begin the meeting at around 5:20 p.m., 15 minutes later the board recessed and drove to Romagnolo’s house on Han Street. Mendizabal said the board received no calls from the public asking to keep the meeting at the district office.
“After the meeting was over, I drove by the district office to make sure no one was waiting for an outcome to the meeting,” Mendizabal added.
Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said although it seems the school board did not violate the letter of the law, their decision violated the spirit of the Brown Act.
“There is a code that states a special meeting must be held in a location that is freely accessible to the public. It just smacks of discouraging the public from taking part in the process, and it certainly casts a pall over the board’s motives,” Ewert commented. “And the reason given about the staff having to stay late suggests they hold the staff in much higher regard than the public they were elected to serve.”
David Kurtzman, a veteran board member, said there were other occasions the school board has convened at a private residence.
“There were at least two or three other meetings. I believe a couple of times there was a conflict with the district facility,” Kurtzman recalled. “There was concern raised in the community about accessibility. I don’t have any problem with meeting at the board room every time. I doubt there will be any meeting in a private home in the future.”
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